Director Ang Lee made Brokeback Mountain,despite its tragedy, into a beautiful picture: scenic, romantic,and even lyrical. In directing Out in the Dark, his first feature film, Michael Mayer did none of this. But what he did was to make a picture far more powerful in both plot and presentation. Lacking Brokeback's "niceness," Out in the Dark more than compensates by its realism.
The story, written by Mayer and Yael Shafir tells of the romantic relationship between a young well-connected Israeli lawyer and a Palestinian graduate student with an Israeli study permit. But Like Brokeback Mountain, the film avoids simply being a "gay-themed" one by situating their involvement within a wider setting. In the first place each must deal with his family: families unalike in nationality, class, language, culture and religion, but alike in not accepting their son's relationship. But broader social and political situations from which the two young men come pose even more serious obstacles, for the film locates their involvement with one another against the present-day tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In a way the individuals become symbols of these two solitudes, each wanting peace and security, but both slow to recognize that their futures are inseparably bound together.
The film does not lay blame. Nor does it examine the righteousness of either cause. But neither does it pull any punches. It is commendable in its honesty in dealing with both Palestinian fanaticism and the heavy-handed apparatus of the Israeli security services. In fact, it even suggests that in the end these play into the hands of one another. Above all, it evokes the atmosphere of fear under which ordinary citizens on both sides of the concrete walls and chain link fences must live and work daily, and fear's terrible toll on their personal lives.
Although the story is gripping, it is also gritty. There is little brightness here, an obviously deliberate choice of director Mayer and cinematographer Ran Aviad. They have created a visual palette that contributes to the film's effect and to the tension that is a constant thread throughout. As the title suggests, so much of the story must take place in the darkness, both literal and figurative. There are glimpses of tenderness, certainly in scenes of the relationship between the two guys, and to some extent when their families are shown. Still, the bright dawn that all involved must surely dream of never really breaks, and Mayer's ambiguous ending is the only honest one possible.
The film is splendidly cast. Michael Aloni as the young Israeli lawyer, Roy Schaefer, is able to display a wide range of emotions: caring, compassion, filial piety, and throughout everything, a hopefulness. He is credible in his naiveté also, trusting in family even when they fail to understand, and trusting far too much that the apparatus of the state will do what is right. But the performance that dominates the picture is the brilliant one given by Nicholas Jacob as the young Palestinian, Nimr Mashrawi. In his first film role, Jacob, whose parents are Arab-Italian and who grew up in Haifa and Nashville (and who is straight), is utterly convincing and utterly captivating. He puts on the screen a character, who even in his youth, must confront demons that few will ever know. At the same time Jacob conveys the sense that, whatever the outcomes, Nimr will never let these demons overcome him. Jacob's handling of the part is so true to life as to be memorable.
But the good acting is not confined to the two leads. Alon Pdut does a fine job as an Israeli security official whose concern for the state has made him cold and hard, and who will use any means that serve his ends. Jamil Khouri as Nimr's brother is equally effective as a man caught up in a web of terror from which he cannot free himself. And as Roy's father, Alon Oleartchik comes across as a family head torn asunder by conflicting emotions. In a smaller but vital part, Loai Nofi as Mustafa, an outrageously gay Arab, does well in a role that must be both comic and tragic.
Dark the picture may be, but it is intense. It is a film that could easily be overlooked, but one that will leave an indelible impression when it is seen. Out in the Dark is Brokeback Mountain's worthy successor.
Out in the Dark premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2012. It has dialogue in Hebrew and Arabic with English sub-titles. It is being distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures, but a general release date has not yet been announced.