JTA – Of all the people to interview on Rosh Hashanah, Israeli writer and director Hagai Levi is particularly apt.
A respected creator of Israeli and American television, he is known for his shows that feature two people talking in a room, much like we do ourselves, albeit on Zoom. HBO’s âIn Treatmentâ, for example, the US version of its Israeli show âBeTipulâ, is made up entirely of sessions between therapist and patient. âScenes from a Wedding,â Levi’s latest for HBO and a two-handed one, solidifies him as an expert on the TV intimacy piece.
When I surprised him for our own tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte, I imagined he would be in Israel to celebrate the Jewish New Year. After wishing each other a “chana tova(Happy New Year) he held up his laptop to reveal his sight of a boat floating on a green canal. He was in Venice for the premiere of ‘Scenes From a Marriage’, a remake of the classic Swedish miniseries by Ingmar Bergman from 1973 on the vicissitudes of a couple’s relationship in the years surrounding their divorce.The series is a fundamental reference for artists interested in portraying intimate relationships, so it is not surprising that it or one of Levi’s favorites When Levi called him the main inspiration for âBeTipul,â Daniel Bergman, the director’s son, asked him to adapt it.
Levi, 58, had just spent three eventful days celebrating the premiere of the miniseries at the Venice International Film Festival, scene of The viral caress of the arms of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain on the red carpet (they play the role of the hot and tortured couple from the show). He stayed to celebrate the Jewish holiday and attended the synagogue with his children in the neighborhood still called the Venetian Ghetto. His father’s family had been in Italy for many generations and he considers the country a second homeland. Her father, Rabbi Joseph Levi, was born in Israel but returned to Italy and served as Chief Rabbi of Florence for more than three decades.
âMy Italian Jewish roots are very important to me. It’s an important part of my identity, âsaid Levi.
Levi speaks straight and thoughtfully in his Hebrew-accented English, without the Hollywood bluster one would expect from a television designer of his acclaim who works so prolifically in Israel and the United States. In fact, Levi has resisted all pressure to move to Hollywood – perhaps in part because of his name. “Hagai” begins with the not particularly English “chet” sound, and when I opened the interview with “Hi Hagai” he replied, “It’s so good that you can pronounce my name!”
He therefore continued to live in Israel, where he created the dramas “The Accursed” and “Our Boys”. The latter, an HBO-Keshet Studios production that he co-created with Israeli-American filmmaker Joseph Cedar and Palestinian filmmaker Tawfik Abu-Wael, was a subtle and devastating portrayal of the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. in 2014. His other best-known American work could be âThe Affair,â an acclaimed Showtime drama examining an extramarital affair from multiple angles.
It was not a given that Levi would become a writer-director. He grew up Orthodox in Israel, not far from Modi’in on Kibbutz Sha’alvim, which he describes as “the most religious kibbutz in the country.” He attended a yeshiva, or religious high school, studying Talmud half the day and secular studies the other half. His introduction to cinema came in his teens when he served as a censor for films screened at the kibbutz, editing films for risky scenes and secular language.
âI had techniques to censor him. I would take it off, or turn the sound off, or take it off the projector, roll it around, then turn it back on after a couple of minutes when it was kosher again, âhe recalls. âI was better than people from other kibbutzim, where they cut the film. I have never done that.
âWesterners were very popular. These are very kosher movies if you think about it, mostly men doing things that the people on the kibbutz know well: tending to the cows. I tried to bring in art films, like the French New Wave, that nobody really wanted to see except me.
Prior to his compulsory military service, Levi studied psychology at Bar-Ilan University. It was in the military that he left religion, a process that lasted for years. After the army, he attended film school at Tel Aviv University.
âIt took me many years to think I could do it. It was like crossing a huge ocean. It was by no means plausible, âLevi said of getting into filmmaking. His first feature film was about religious Italian Jews in Jerusalem. âI realized after the fact that I didn’t have enough tools yet to make a feature film. So I saw TV as a way to practice until I came back to the movies.
âAnd, you know, about 30 years laterâ¦â About 30 years later, he’s on his third HBO series.
Since the US adaptation of âIn Treatment,â which premiered in 2008, Israel has been a successful source of series and formats in the competitive and globalized landscape of Hollywood television production. Many examples include “Homeland”, “Euphoria”, “Fauda”, “Losing Alice”, “Valley of Tears” and “Shtisel”. Levi started the trend.
âHagai was definitely a pioneer when it comes to exporting Israeli television,â said Avi Nir, CEO of Israeli media group Keshet Broadcasting. Levi was the helm of Keshet’s drama when he directed “BeTipul,” which in addition to being shown on American television, has been adapted in 20 countries.
âI think Hagai drew attention to the unique storytelling sensitivity that exists in Israel,â Nir added. âHe personifies the author, the creator who is not, one might say, as industrial as certain other creators, certain American creators, who are very sensitive to the odds. He creates from a different place.
âOn the one hand, he is very aware of the platform, the viewer and the need to communicate. And on the other hand, he’s very, very loyal to his characters. Their psychology. It’s very unique about Hagai. He is a very thoughtful, sensitive and wise designer.
Levi’s work is often imbued with a moral vagueness, overwhelming and sometimes crippling ambiguity that comes from a deep conflict of perspectives (“RashomonWas one of the first inspirations for âThe Affairâ). He usually asks more questions than he answers. âScenes from a weddingâ is no different.
âEven though it’s someone else’s creation, it’s maybe my most personal work,â Levi said.
He has a lot in common with Jonathan, the character of professor of philosophy played by Isaac. The character is also a former Orthodox Jew, which is one of the biggest differences from Bergman’s original. Levi recounted âa lot of details about Jonathan: ex-religious, the difficult years after leaving religion. The morning pages Jonathan reads, I pulled them out of my own diaries, sort of. And I went through a divorce. I know the price children pay. I had a lot of equipment to bring.
In these morning pages, Jonathan talks about his anxiety, his tendency to lose himself in himself. Levi has said in interviews that he struggled with panic attacks after leaving religion, which was one of the reasons he became interested in therapy – the practice and the subject. The themes of intimacy evoke the concept of havruta, the two-person rabbinical approach to learning the Talmud, in which students analyze, debate and interpret together in partnership.
âIt’s a very interesting theory. Because somehow I have to answer the question, why am I so obsessed with dialogues with two talking people? ” he said.
âMost people think that in a yeshiva you have a lecture, but most of the time you are alone, learning with someone who is your partner. Together you have this dialogue, trying to understand something about the Gemara, the Talmud, but also about the world. Of all. I’m just thinking about it now that you can get very lonely with these issues. Finding someone to talk to is … it’s a miracle.
Levi thoughtfully adds, âYou are right about the importance of dialogue in my life. And the importance of being understood.
In “Scenes From a Marriage,” Mira (Chastain) leaves Jonathan for an Israeli character, a confident young technician who is the foil to Jonathan’s American, once a religious Jew. I interpreted it as a play on the mythology of two long-standing Jewish archetypes: the old Jew – studious, diasporic, intellectual and inhibited; and the new Jew, the Israeli macho, confident and physically strong. Finding these references to deep, niche questions of Jewish identity in a star-studded American drama was like finding the afikomen in a bodega. Was it intentional?
Hagai’s face lights up at the mention of this dichotomy.
âI’m so happy – you have no idea – I’m so glad you noticed this,â he said. âIt’s one of those things that you do and hope that other people, especially the Jews, [will notice].
âYou know, I’m always asked if I’m an Israeli designer. And I always say I feel a lot more Jewish than Israeli. It is the most dominant part of my identity. When I am abroad, I always go to the synagogue. And yes, I totally prefer the Old Jew to the New Jew. The new Jew is ignorant or sure of himself for no reason. Or he’s somewhere in the hills of the West Bank. So I’m really proud to be an old Jew – with all the baggage that comes with it. “