They’re real, and they’re spectacular: A review of the film A Matter of Size

By | May 17, 2010

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Note: I have been liberal with the spoilers in the following review, with the expectation that many of my readers may not get the chance to see the film. However, I have held back some of the more central plot points, so there are plenty of surprises left should an opportunity to see it arise — and if it does, take it!

When an email landed in my inbox offering me free passes to see a A Matter of Size, I was dubious. But there was a warmth evident in the trailer that I didn’t expect, and my interest was piqued. So it came to pass that my husband and I appeared at the charmingly shabby West Newton Cinema on a quiet Sunday afternoon, collected two free small buckets of popcorn to go with our free tickets, and settled in to see a film about four fat guys who quit dieting and learn sumo wrestling.

The brilliance of including free popcorn was not lost on me.

Our hero is Herzl (acted with immense charm by Itzik Cohen), whose weight loss failures are legendary, and who is kicked out of his diet club by the club’s leader — a woman both subtle and monstrous at the same time — for continually gaining weight and thus imposing a negative drag on the morale of the club’s other members. The experience is reminiscent of old-school Weight Watchers weigh-ins, public and humiliating, where weights are called out to the assembled and congratulations are offered to those who have lost. Though Herzl pleads with the club leader repeatedly for another chance, she refuses, and eventually his anger comes to a confrontation in front of the whole group, in which Herzl is outspoken in his criticism of dieting and announces that he is starting a “sumo club” for the fat people of Ramle, the town in Israel where the film takes place.

There is more to the story, naturally. Herzl suffers the barbs of his well-meaning but often-harsh mother, who berates him about his weight while simultaneously plying him with food. The film captures the complexity of these family relationships and conversations about weight with nuance and great care; Herzl’s mother can be vicious in her comments, and yet we’re never allowed to doubt that she loves her son. Indeed, the only thing approaching the standard “but what about your health?” preaching comes from Herzl’s mother, and we are led to believe that she does so because Herzl’s father’s weight “killed” him — which it did, as we later learn, though not in the way one might assume.

The fate of Herzl’s father is an unexpected punchline to a joke we weren’t aware we were being told, and that is a good example of the humor employed in this film. There are no cheap fat jokes here; the closest thing to them are the examples in the film’s trailer, but in the context of the whole story, they don’t play out in the way you’d expect. The size-based humor comes across more like affectionate in-jokes than an excuse for malicious laughs at the hapless fatties. I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with fat jokes, so long as they are funny — it’s just that so few of them are. The fat jokes in A Matter of Size manage this feat admirably.

Over the course of the film, Herzl falls in love with the winsome Zehava (played by Irit Kaplan), also a member of the diet club. She, along with three of Herzl’s friends, originally quits the club in favor of Herzl’s sumo plans, though she subsequently waffles throughout the film between self-acceptance and dieting. Zehava is both fat and a fully realized character who moves through the story with a very human mixture of confidence and self-doubt. She tries to bring feminism to the women of the local prison where she is a social worker, and later, when she and Herzl are about to have sex for the first time, she expects to do it with the lights on, while Herzl is the one reluctant to be seen. Notably, neither character is portrayed as either sex-starved or sex-crazed, nor as fetishized, but instead they are normal people who simply like each other.

Later, when Kitano, the sumo coach and owner of the Japanese restaurant where Herzl works, tells Zehava “there are no women in sumo,” and that she cannot participate, it’s clear she had honestly intended to learn sumo as an equal member with the men, and her exclusion is both enraging and painful to watch. She later tells Herzl that of course she isn’t upset, no one can hurt her anymore, that she has “elephant skin” owing to a lifetime of being mistreated for being fat — even as she cries over her disappointment. The subtext is overwhelming: this is a woman looking for somewhere to belong, and if she cannot belong to sumo, then she will return to where she can belong, the diet club. Herzl repeatedly attempts to talk Zehava out of her continued dieting efforts, and when she asks if he’d be upset to have a “babe” for a girlfriend (forcing us to ignore for a moment that actress Irit Kaplan is stunningly beautiful and thus a babe in her own right), Herzl simply says he probably would not dump her over that. But Herzl also asserts more than once that he loves Zehava just as she is.

The film’s self-acceptance themes extend throughout the other characters. Gidi, one of Herzl’s friends and a member of the sumo club, comes out as gay, and the revelation is treated with a sweet and shrugging nonchalance by his friends, which left me astonished, especially considering this is a group of men engaged in a whole lot of near-naked physical contact with one another. The only punchline squeezed from this subplot occurs when Gidi, whose internet-enabled discovery of bear subculture is positively heartwarming, interrupts to tell the group about a recent date with a remarkably conventionally-attractive bartender. As he begins, Aharon, the outspoken and insensitive counterpoint to Herzl’s earnest optimism, half-jokingly tells Gidi to shut up and be grateful that they accept him without beating him up. Aharon himself is a piece of work, given to racist comments about the Japanese restaurant workers, and initially dubious about sumo, but even he evolves into a better person by the story’s end. (On a personal note, I am compelled to mention that the actor who plays Aharon, Dvir Benedek, is unbelieveably gorgeous. Seriously kids, I rarely swoon at people in the movies but this man is resplendent to look upon. I am fluttering my hands around my face even as I think about it.)

I left the theater thinking this may well be more radical and genuine in its dealing with the lives of real fat people than any narrative film I’ve ever seen, and yet it never for a second comes across as preachy or heavy-handed. There is an enormous amount of naked fat flesh onscreen — most of it male — and the filmmakers are refreshingly unabashed about using real numbers (Herzl, for example, weighs about 340 pounds) or real near-naked fat bodies, which are beautifully filmed. The sheer volume of screentime spent showing these men wearing only enough to protect the very pinnacle of their modesty somehow, magically, imparts dignity and demands respect. These men are fat — not Hollywood-fat, but legitimately fat — and there is very little shame about that, and what shame exists is rapidly dispensed with once the sumo mawashi are put on. Herzl goes from standing on the scale in the diet club with a pained grimace, his eyes screwed shut, to standing on a scale in the woods during sumo training and laughing uproariously, all of these men laughing with abandon, one by one, as they see their weights. I sat in the theater myself, agape with wonder, pondering the question what must everyone else in here be thinking? For me, the sight of unabashedly fat flesh is normal, familiar, not something to be hidden or avoided — but wouldn’t this be astonishing to other people, who hadn’t seen it before?

In this film, there is no final weight-loss redemption, a possibility I dreaded throughout. Even Zehava, after a particularly ugly exchange with the diet club leader, eventually comes around to Herzl’s way of thinking. Dieting is portrayed and discussed throughout the story as a pointless endeavor, doomed to failure, and certainly not the sure route to happiness that conventional wisdom would suggest. Meanwhile, the sumo club trains extensively, and yet no one loses weight; they simply become fitter and ultimately better people.

I told you it was radical.

Over the course of my research on the film I discovered that Dimension has acquired English-language rights to A Matter of Size, which has been wildly well-received on the festival circuit. I would be surprised indeed if an American remake could manage to get through the story without offering some weight-loss-based deliverance for its characters, or without making some overtures with regards to the “health” of the protagonists. More than that, I am dubious that an American version is capable of reproducing the warmth and subtlety in the original, every moment of which is saturated with a belief in its message of self-acceptance and an abiding and familial love for its characters, all of their idiosyncrasies and imperfections included. A Matter of Size is certainly a comedy of grand proportions, but it’s also a love story: a love story about self-love.

A Matter of Size was directed by Sharon Maymon & Erez Tadmor, and written by Sharon Maymon & Danny Cohen-Solal. More information about this film and future showings can be found at the Menemsha Films website. A Matter of Size is now playing at West Newton Cinema in West Newton, MA. See the link for showtimes, and do support your local independent movie theaters!


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