One of the characters in Arik Kaplun’s comedy-drama about the tribulations of Russian immigrants to Israel is an aged, paralyzed veteran named Yitzhak (Moscu Alcalay), a grizzled, unkempt fellow who’s pushed about aimlessly in his wheelchair by relatives, sometimes rolling away haphazardly as the contraption escapes them. On the surface Yitzhak seems a hopeless case, trapped by circumstances that leave him no future; but periodically one notices a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and by the time “Yana’s Friends” is over, he’s been rediscovered by an old lover and proves himself not quite so incapacitated as everyone assumed. The whole of Kaplun’s picture is rather like him. It shambles along, looking tattered and frayed, and set at a time of recent crisis in Israeli history (the beginning of the Gulf War, when Iraqi missiles threatened the country and all residents had to be ready to don gas masks at a moment’s notice), it conveys a sense of quiet desperation about what might happen to everybody in sight. Yet ultimately it develops into a charming fable about the indomitability of people even in difficult circumstances. The characters come through personal, social and economic turmoil to find companionship, and by the close the affection they feel for one another has spilled into the audience as well. The result is a small, rather unfinished gem of a movie, but one that shines fairly brightly nonetheless.

The narrative is named after a young Russian woman (Evelyne Kaplun) who arrives in Israel with husband Fima (Israel Demidov). After depositing her in a flat to be shared with photographer Eli (Nir Levi), however, Fima returns to the homeland with the funds the Israeli government had provided to help the couple over their first year as new citizens, and soon Yana finds herself abandoned and pregnant. At the same time another couple, Alik (Vladimir Friedman) and Mila (Lena Sachanova), take up residence nearby with Mila’s catatonic grandfather Yitzhak, and before long Alik realizes that he can turn a profit by situating the old man in the street near sidewalk musician Yuri (Shmil Ben-Ari) to collect donations from passers-by–a situation which leads to contention between Yuri and Alik. Also in the mix are Rosa (Dalia Friedland), Yana and Eli’s landlady, who also has a past with Yitzhak, and some children studying at a local music school. These various characters quarrel and spar, but ultimately they come together in a variety of combinations and learn not only to tolerate but to assist one another. The picture thus becomes a small parable about assimilation and growing camaraderie at a time when the very idea of the nation is being threatened.

“Yana’s Friends” is an unprepossessing picture technically; the cinematography is ragged, and the acting, while perfectly adequate, is hardly overwhelming. But the surprises that Kaplun has scattered throughout his screenplay have considerable poignancy, and he manages to make us care about the peculiar collection of characters he’s assembled and root for them all to find a bit of happiness. He’s also not afraid to mix drama in with the comedy: Yana’s difficult decision about her pregnancy is a case in point, and it dovetails with a bit of Rosa’s history that we eventually learn about. For all its apparent simplicity, the plot actually touches upon some quite profound questions, but Kaplun never allows it to get too heavy or schmaltzy. By the time it’s over you’ll have gotten to know this odd assortment of people, and to like them, too.