22 January 2007 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »
PARK CITY -- Only someone who grew up on an Israeli kibbutz could have made "Sweet Mud". Screenwriter-director Dror Shaul infuses this almost-memoir with a sweet melancholy. A viewer gains a real appreciation for the spirit and romantic idealism of a commune -- and how things can go so wrong. This is a film from the heart, from a firsthand familiarity that yields conflicted emotions over the gap between an ideal and its realization.
"Sweet Mud", the Israeli entry for the foreign-language Oscar, has limited though solid art house potential in North America because it touches on such coming-of-age issues as identity and first love along with the central issue of communal vs. individual needs.
Shaul said the film "is not an entirely true story" but admits he plumbed childhood memories as a Boy Born and raised on a kibbutz. The story he tells is of 12-year-old Dvir (a resourceful Tomer Steinhof), who enters his bar mitzvah year in 1974 in an isolated kibbutz. Like all children, he is raised collectively by the community, sleeping in the "children's house" and assigned farm chores. His solitude is more extreme than most, however, since his father has died -- in circumstances pointedly kept from him -- and his mother Miri (an extraordinary Ronit Yudkevitch) has only recently returned from a mental hospital. An older brother gets distracted by young women and military service, while most of the community is uncomfortable around the mentally fragile Miri, who no longer fits the kibbutz ideal.
A visit by Miri's boyfriend, a much older Swiss gentleman (Henri Garcin), brings things to a head. Just when Miri is happiest, her dreams get dashed and with them her spirit. Dvir must grow up fast to take care of his beloved mother and to understand his growing affection for a young French girl, who suffers from a similar alienation from her parents and community.
Shaul has cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid shoot the kibbutz and surrounding countryside in warm, earthen tones that make the rural community hugely inviting. The utopian spirit is certainly inviting at first, but the discord and small tyrannies become clear over time. Shaul steps through this delicate minefield adroitly, seeing things for what they are yet understanding the ideals that makes utopian communities seem so viable. What the film makes clear is that such collectives have no real way to deal with truly vulnerable individuals.
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