(JNS) When Michael Aloni’s agent told him about The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, he was a bit confused. “Since when is there a beauty pageant in Jerusalem?” Aloni recalled asking at the time at an event last week at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in New York City.
He had just finished filming the third season of Shtisel and shaved off his beard. He said he read Sarit Yishai Levi’s best-selling novel, on which the series is based, in less than two days and cried while reading it.
“There was such an intense shift from everything ‘Shtisel’ stands for and what Akiva is – and then a shift into something that’s so far out there,” he said.
In the novel and show, the Armoza men are somehow cursed to marry women they don’t love. The family grappled with numerous issues for decades while Palestine was controlled by the Turks in the early 20th century, then by the British as part of their mandate, eventually becoming the modern-day State of Israel. The show jumps through different periods a lot; It’s a bit confusing at first, but the viewer gets used to it.
Originally slated to be filmed in Ukraine, it was primarily filmed and broadcast in the country in Tzfat, Israel due to the coronavirus pandemic. It won Best Drama and received three other awards at the Israeli version of the Emmy Awards. According to Aloni, it is also one of the most expensive Israeli productions.
The 10-episode series is coming to Netflix and is one of the most anticipated Jewish shows of the year.
It definitely lives up to the hype. There’s a hanging, a gunfight, a stabbing, a bomb blast, and a prison break. There’s a hot smooch scene, a non-hot love scene, an opium-induced hallucination, and even dressing a sick male baby in female clothing to confuse the evil eye and save his life.
The show is a smashing performance based on good acting from Aloni who plays Gabriel Armoza; Hila Saada, who plays his wife Rosa; and Swell Ariel Or, who makes her starring debut as her daughter Luna. With her piercing green eyes and an acting range that ranges from pained, bright-eyed and even comical in the seventh installment, predictions of Or being Israel’s next big star are spot on. If she doesn’t knock your socks off, then you’re not wearing socks.
Your character longs for justice, independence and love. She goes through a heartbreak, a mother who is cruel to her and finds herself in trouble keeping a secret from the British forces.
Or said she read the book in two hours and, ironically, wasn’t turned down until after she auditioned for the series. Months later, she was called back and got the part.
“My parents and my grandparents and their parents – they all wanted to be artists. They didn’t do it,” she said. “It’s the curse for me, and I’m breaking it.”
“Do you love me?”
Saada, who many will recognize from The Baker and the Beauty, where she played a deserted lover who poured soup over the man she thought was planning to marry her, is made unattractive on this show. Her character is a poor cleaning lady who hits the jackpot and marries into the rich Armoza family, who own a shop selling the finest chocolates, pistachios and other groceries. She also gets a mother-in-law, Mercada, played by an extraordinary Irit Kaplan, who is tough and values her only as a vehicle for a grandson.
Saada is fantastic in the role of a woman struggling due to trauma. The actress said she has a trick up her sleeve when it comes to acting like a woman who isn’t loved.
“Michael is a great partner,” she said. “Every time between cuts, I’d say to Michael, ‘Do you love me?’ He said yes.’ I said, ‘Okay, we can move on…’”
The cast includes the standout Yuval Scharf as Rochel, who is the forbidden fruit. Fans will recognize her from Srugim. There’s also the iconic speaking Itzik Cohen from “Fauda” as someone who helps send messages and rocks a cool moustache. Tom Hagi shows talent as Ephraim Siton, Rosa’s brother who can be menacing but sees himself through the prism of a hero, and indeed he saves his sister from a horrific situation only seen in the 10th episode. Shely Ben Joseph stars as Matilda Franco, Luna’s friend who advises her but ends up needing help herself.
Shtisel fans will notice a small role here for Sarel Piterman, who plays Tzvi Aryeh in this series. Eli Steen is impressive as Luna’s sister Rachel, who wants to show that she’s kiss-worthy and willing to risk her life for a cause she believes in. Israel Ogalbo is convincing as a frat boy who thinks he’ll get what he wants because of his good looks but might push his luck.
Aloni is in his wheelhouse as a handsome, soulful man haunted by not finding love and grappling with guilt and a desire to be honorable. His character tries to be good but does some bad things. Aloni shows why he is a megastar.
The show quickly comes out of the gate with several tragedies, slowing down to allow for character development midway through, then picking up again in the later episodes with more pronounced violence between Jews and Arabs. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.
The show was written by Shlomo Mashiach who created it with Ester Namdar Tamam and Oded Davidoff, who also directs. Produced by Yes Studios and Artza Productions, you’ll likely devour the first 10 episodes and eagerly await the next 10, due out on July 29th.
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