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The Dead Sea is one of Israel's biggest tourist attractions and the
surrounding desert is immensely picturesque. It's nice to see some of
that in a movie, although we don't get much because burglary and the
wilderness don't exactly mix. That's one of the problems for the
protagonist; even in what passes for a town by desert standards, she
doesn't enjoy the anonymity a big city would give her.
The protagonist-- the burglar-- is flawed and apparently not entirely sane. She breaks the rules, but not in a charismatic, rebellious, Thelma-and-Louise way. She breaks rules we don't like to see broken. Not an easy person to sympathize with, but we can sympathize regarding the problem she faces, which is how to keep body and soul together when her mother suddenly disappears.
Besides the handful of desert shots, the movie boasts artsy close- ups of the kind that aid suspense by assuming unexpected points of view. Once, for a second, I didn't even know what I was looking at at all. And I wasn't always sure what was happening and why. But the heroine's risky break-ins are consistently suspenseful and there is a fine little gallery of actors on hand for the anti-heroine to be alienated from.
Without challenging the truth of the sad stories the movie tells, I still think it went overboard in the cinematic tricks that make the Hassidim look an alien peril-- photographing them from the back or in far-off groups as if they are too frightening to be approached, or showing fractions of their faces, or showing them moving quickly while the soundtrack plays slow, ominous music. The movie could have made its point-- to the extent that its point is legitimate-- without such techniques of audience manipulation. And the manipulation would be less distressing if the documentary were merely one among a large number of competing sympathetic and unsympathetic portrayals of Hassidism. As is, this is likely to be the only view of Hassidism many people receive, at least this year, and it will leave them with an imbalanced impression. Who would guess, after seeing these stories, that there are also people who willingly join the Hassidic movement without being born or brainwashed into it?
Neither side behaved well in the Israeli controversy over Foxtrot. The
Minister of Culture condemned the movie without seeing it, and the
filmmakers tried to weasel out by claiming surrealism as a form of
artistic license. The film isn't surrealistic, although it's
The first section is the most expressionistic, packed with overhead shots that feature a weirdly patterned floor. For a while, you wonder whether master actor Lior Ashkenazi has been handed the challenge of playing his part with no lines at all as his character receives and absorbs the notification that his son has fallen in the line of duty. That turns out not to be the case, but to an extent he does remain, throughout this section, a kind of Everyman defined by his situation rather than by any specific background we're aware of.
The second section is what made the Minister of Culture grumpy. It shows a soldier making an error of split-second judgment with terrible consequences, followed by a cover-up. The accusation against the movie was that such things don't happen in the Israeli army. I was less disturbed by the soldier's error (people are people), and even by the cover-up (bureaucracies are bureaucracies) than by the coverer-up, an officer made to look like a boulder- bodied ogre. He seems to taint everyone with evil, and coincidentally or not, his appearance marks the point where the movie-- in my opinion-- loses its footing.
The first and second sections hinted at intriguing parallels between the generations, as well as a sense of recurring themes, but the third section invests in effortfully tying together what didn't need any such effort and in driving the plot forward past where it could have gracefully ended. It was a little like hearing a joke explained after you've already laughed at it, although Foxtrot certainly doesn't abound in laughs. It's a well-acted, philosophically contemplative film that just goes on for a little too long.
Like Arlo Guthrie in Alice's Restaurant, Asher Lax plays a character
based somewhat on himself. A fellow who works for his father in the
scaffolding business. There's cinematic potential there, and I wouldn't
have minded coming out of the movie knowing a little about scaffolding,
but that aspect is nowhere near thoroughly exploited. Nor is there a
firm sense of place inside Israel. It seems that if a particular
municipality isn't helping to fund the film, Israeli filmmakers are
unaware of the advantage of making the location specific anyway. What
we do get is the story of a young man with conflicting loyalties to two
father figures-- the one he's intended to inherit the business from,
who considers book learning superfluous to their lives, and his
high-school English teacher, who wants to give him and his fellow
low-scoring students a chance at intellectual development.
Asher's real-life teacher wrote and directed the movie, and maybe that's the reason it strays so little from the main characters into their surroundings or into the lives and personalities of supporting characters. In a TV interview, the teacher/writer/director pointed out that the teacher character is another person, like the Asher character, whose potential is unfulfilled and even unnoticed.
The Asher character is an unlikely protagonist, impatient and impulsive. It takes a while to wake up to the idea that this really is the fellow who's supposed to deserve the full measure of our attention, and even longer to warm to the idea. But the Asher actor performs at award level (one win, one major nomination) and he's supported by a top professional actor in the role of his father. The teacher is also played well, but the demands of the script make him an iceberg-- something that's mostly below the surface.
I imagine we haven't seen the last of Asher Lax the actor. Unlike his father in the movie, his real-life father says that if Asher wants to leave the scaffolding business, that's okay.
My favorite part is when two policemen appear as if straight out of
Pinter-- authoritative, confusing, and scary. For a while,
unsettlingly, one of them speaks from outside the frame while the face
of the other reflects the tenor of the words. We can identify with the
protagonist's confusion, because it's the confusion of Everyman in a
situation of weakness.
Already, though, the protagonist is not just a tabula rasa but has begun to exhibit behavior that limits the audience's identification with her. Maybe for that reason the script would have worked better as a stage play. Certainly the lead actress, Tamar Alkin, has proved herself on the stage as well as on the screen, and the challenges that the film takes upon itself-- a small set, and scene- long camera shots-- are typical of the stage.
Some scenes are built around visitors less interesting than the policeman, and they don't manage to strike sparks. But when the mystery that runs through the movie is solved, the solution is a good one, sufficiently foreshadowed and sufficiently hard to guess, without being artificially neat.
For Azimuth, the obvious comparison is 1968's Hell in the Pacific,
which was about an American soldier and a Japanese soldier stranded
together in the context of World War II. The big difference is that the
conflict that frames Azimuth-- the ArabIsraeli conflict-- is still
going on, so that a certain tether keeps the story from taking up full
residence in the realm of fable. Some distancing is achieved, though,
by the use of music that carries the sound of a previous cinematic
generation. The credits mentioned Rachmaninoff.
Unlike the opposing soldiers of Hell in the Pacific, those of Azimuth quickly discover that they can communicate well in English. It could happen, but it's a little unlikely. More unlikely is their almost cartoon-like ability to weather hostile fire and endure pain through much of the movie. But if you suspend disbelief, you can enjoy some fine acting, especially by Sammy Sheik, and a suspenseful time. (How much time the events take is uncertain, but apparently it's intended to be not much more than the screen time.) Although the message is a familiar one, the audience is kept guessing as to how it will be punctuated.
Looking at Michal Bat-Adam over the years, you'd think she had stopped
time. But she's in her seventies now, and she's brought us a movie
about the big questions. How is it that the past is dead, and in a way
we're dead along with it, while at the same time the past seems like
only yesterday? What is the purpose of all that? Is it the pursuit of
some transcendent love, a love that hides itself as we approach?
The framework for Bat-Adam's reflections is a multi-generational story set in Jaffa, made of physically beautiful images, and-- not surprisingly in a Bat-Adam movie-- difficult to piece together. I wouldn't mind seeing the movie another one or two times just to focus on which character is who and how the characters are connected with one another. Not only does Bat-Adam disdain spoon-feeding the exposition to the audience, but in this movie she breaks another convention and does not make sure that all the important female characters draw our attention by looking beautiful.
If you're in it just for the experience, though, the confusion doesn't matter. It's like a lovely song with lyrics that half the time you can't quite catch. I hope Michal Bat-Adam never retires, but if she does retire tomorrow, she'll be going out at her best.
Israel isn't the socialist country that it once was, but it still has
something of a collectivist spirit and there are still Israeli movie
makers who-- as one critic complained maybe a decade ago-- eschew the
traditional central character in favor of a movie about "the guys." In
"Antenna," there's no central character we can identify with. But in
this case we can't even identify with "the guys" very enthusiastically.
The movie revolves around three brothers who are all leading messed-up
lives. We see them all falling short of their personal goals, and not
because they stand up for principle or are just too eccentric in some
lovable way. Maybe (the dialogue hints) they're all indirectly scarred
because their father is a Holocaust survivor.
Some of Israel's best actors are in the movie-- a couple even in surprisingly small roles-- and they hold attention every moment, while the story plays out believably. Maybe too believably for a movie that's marketed as partly comical. Or maybe I'm just too old to look at matters like backaches and diabetes and forgetfulness at a sufficient remove. But I didn't see much to charm, entice, or amuse the audience, and I kind of fear for the movie's fate because while it holds up a mirror to society in a constructive and artistically skillful way, I don't envision crowds taking it to their hearts. I hope I'm wrong. It deserves to be seen, and it has enough plot for a whole TV season packed into it.
Another way in which the movie could have increased audience identification, at least in Israel, would have been to provide a sense of geography. I'm pretty sure I glimpsed Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv, at one point, but the characters live in various places and we don't ever get a clear sense of where. Maybe I've been spoiled because so many Israeli films these days are partly sponsored by municipal budgets and make sure to identify their settings, but I've come to like the grounding that a known setting affords to a movie.
A standard sentence of advice to short-story writers is "Throw away your first sentence." An audience could be forgiven for thinking that as he assembled the four episodes of Saving Neta, Nir Bergman decided art would be best served if he threw away the last minute of each. But abruptly though each episode might conclude, the audience is quickly caught up in the next. Only the first one starts off slowly, and I suppose Bergman can afford that because it features Rotem Abuhav, a TV star popular enough to carry leading roles in two sitcoms as well as a humorous panel show all broadcast on the same weekly schedule. Her popularity serves her well here, because she plays a snappish figure and we have to believe in her underlying humanity. The only touch that the audience rebelled at came later in the movie, when a singing duo pops up in the middle of nowhere for an interlude. The surrealism broke the mood and the audience laughed at it, not with it. The rest of the movie arouses empathy for the characters as it juxtaposes a flood of everyday practical problems against the larger problems of family and self that the characters face.
"Keeping up" in this case means that an everyday couple finds that the situation calls upon them to try to be as brave, sophisticated, and resourceful as the secret agents who are their neighbors. But the movie wants us to understand that the story isn't merely about obviously extraordinary people and about ordinary people who rise to the occasion. The ordinary guy has talents too. He's in human resources, and it's not a job that gets him much respect but he knows how to connect and communicate with people. His people skills are something the undercover neighbors are lacking, and so each pair of neighbors can learn from the other. That's a nice point for a movie to make-- that they also serve who never leave their desks, and that everyone's approach to life can use some rounding out.
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