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Wrestling With Self-Acceptance

January 28, 2010
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Love means never having to say you're ... sumo?

With all due respect to the recently deceased author Erich Segal, love -- and self-image -- are a big part of the questions rolled around on the mat in the delightfully sumo-set arena of "A Matter of Size," the opening entry in the Israeli Film Festival, set to unspool on Feb. 6, at 8 p.m., at the Gershman Y(www.iffphila.com) in Center City.

Size does matter, as Herzl (Itzik Cohen) expands his vision of what life may mean when the constantly demoted and demoralized sad-sack salad-bar chef in a small Israeli town wrestles with a career as a sumo warrior, coached by his new boss, a Japanese Zionist, in a sushi bar.

But the award-winning film, an inverse Israeli version of "The Biggest Loser" -- Itzik, obese and obtuse, wises up when he realizes that he can become a sumo by gaining even more weight -- is light on its feet and strong in its performances, with thanks in great part to Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor, co-directors, who co-opted a universal concern of self-image and weighed in with a triumph.

"We didn't know a lot about the topic," says Maymon, "since sumo is not so big in Israel. But we really see this film as one that is all about self-acceptance."

With Itzik and a threesome of friends also facing life larded with self-loathing -- throw in Itzik's love interest, and it's a self-contained, albeit wobbly, Weight Watchers confab of low esteem and high cholesterol -- you have a fab five of fat chances.

Weight problems weren't limited to the script. The stolid star, described as shy, wouldn't give the shirt off his back initially for the role.

Says Tadmor: "He wouldn't take off his shirt for scenes."

"He didn't even want to hear about the project, at first," recalls Tadmor, but was a tad more receptive when his agent interfered. Waist not ? He eventually gave in and got used to it.

Can "A Matter of Size" find a sizable audience outside of Israel and film festivals?

It's more than sumo and the Sinai, say the directors.

The film mirrors the world's concern over image, and Israelis aren't immune to it: "There is the same image that fat is not beautiful, an image that comes from the West."

"Israel does have a sumo group, made up mostly of Russian émigrés, but they are slimmer than you would imagine," explains Maymon.

Far and away, one of the goals of the film is to portray shared philosophies between some Far East and Israeli/Jewish cultures. "I noticed the similarities after we took a [research] trip for the film to Japan," says Maymon of the sumos' stomping grounds.

Adds his co-director: "Women are not allowed in the arena," thrown out of the sumo ring because of their gender.

What would Jenny Craig say?

What the film does say is that self-acceptance comes in all sighs -- the final scene is a lovely sentimental coda that decodes all that came before -- and leaves one understanding that life is truly the best of three falls.

Food for thought, food for fought -- as these heavyweights inhale meals as a mitzvah. The background of a sushi bar sets the bar high for some confrontational discussions.

"Oh, the Israelis love their sushi," says Tadmor of a country whose mixed menu of "couscous and sushi" shouldn't surprise many. "I think there are more sushi restaurants in Tel Aviv than there are hummus places."

What this small film of big intentions demonstrates is the sheer abundance of problems that weigh on everyone's mind. While the two directors (who will be at the Gershman Y on opening night) are already on to other projects with other collaborators, they are hoping that "A Matter of Size" matters way beyond the screen.

Maybe it will mean a surge of interest in sumo wrestling in Israel? Maymon doubts it.

More likely, and what he says he hopes for, is that it will lead more people to tighten their belts -- and not for economic reasons.

"Maybe," he reasons, "many people will start to see the value of diet."

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