CANNES FESTIVAL: Schlomi and Ronit Elkabetz explore the past and the present to confront an unavoidable future in “LES CAHIERS NOIRS”

CANNES, France – Filmmaker Schlomi Elkabetz made a documentary “Les Cahiers Noirs,” (“Machbarot Shchorot” in the original Hebrew) about his recently-departed sister (she died of cancer on April 19th, 2016), the actress and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz. The project is over a decade in the making. Elkabetz sent a filmed love letter to his sister. Fusing hand-held camera footage with scenes from some of her recent movies, he lets the viewer in on scenes from his family’s life, with Ronit going in and out of the sequences and clips from her films are thrown in, muddying the lines between fiction and reality. His parents, arguing around the kitchen over money, where they could’ve been, where they are now, Skype calls with her husband and their twins in Israel, working on editing a movie together.

I imagine that he started filming Ronit (and he does film her a lot, in sometimes very personal moments, and she does not look annoyed because of it) to document his sister’s rise in cinema. After a diagnosis of cancer in the mid-2010s began upending their lives, however, Schlomi Elkabetz must have figured that recording her every move had suddenly become crucial. Capturing the exuberance, the softness commingling with the strength that is Ronit Elkabetz as her health began declining.

There are long behind-the-scenes clips from the set of “GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” which is a film that was mostly directed by Ronit Elkabetz, but likely because of the illness, she has moments where she breaks down, dead to the world, and her brother tries to encourage her to keep going but she gives up, Schlomi sometimes took over directing duties.

The film came out in 2014, with shooting probably occurring about two years before that. Elkabetz shows signs of wear and tear, there is coughing, a bronchitis. The cancer would follow soon after this, though I may be wrong on the exact sequence of the dastardly events. All the same, the angelic Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz was stricken with a death sentence and would soon leave this lowly world, depriving us of her beauty and her persona. She was mature, maternal and emotional, the antithesis to artistic culture, no affectedness or mannerisms.

In one scene she returns home after an extended absence, and Proustian-like, she takes in the empty apartment, noting the aromas (of books, of mildew, old incense, of dried flowers, who knows what scents occupy our living spaces?) as they enter into her brain, smelling her way through each room of the apartment, gratefully, satisfyingly, she’s moved.

She waxes poetic about Paris, where she spent many years, commenting about the unique quality of the sunlight in Paris.

The producers send in the Mahler adagietto, they want to use it for the ending of “Gett.” Schlomi films as his sister takes in the piece at home, soaring and meandering with it, in cutesy mock fashion. She imagines a woman entering an empty house with a view, she tells Schlomi, a man she doesn’t recognize is there, she knew him once, the object of her love, when she was young. Her mother calls and she tells her, amused, that the music doesn’t see fit but that the music inspired a new film idea to her.

Ronit Elkabetz was exuberance, her strong personality and beauty of Italian neo-realist films well-captured by her brother in this moving love letter of a film.