Writer/director Eran Riklis compares the film to Bergman's Persona because of the intimacy and tension of the relationship between the two women, but I think a closer comparison might be with Coppola's The Rain People, where a woman unsure of herself as a future mother picks up a hitchhiker and finds herself receiving practice in the task of caring for another person.
When the movie ended, a woman in the theater asked me to take one side or the other in a debate with her friend over what actually had happened during the final minutes. The audience is indeed left with some bits to figure out, but I didn't feel seriously cheated. The production was professional, suspense was maintained continuously, and the music-- even if composer Yehonatan Riklis is, one might guess, some kind of relative of the director-- makes a fine, tasteful, enhancement.
The film takes place in Akko (Acre), for whatever reason. The mother remarks at one point that she doesn't have to worry about money (and that's why she never approached the father regarding the son), but I'm not sure that if you don't have to worry about money you live in Akko. Be that as it may, it's good for a movie to have a specific location and Akko is an unusual one. We get to see a little of it, and more would have been welcome.
Besides winning the award for best screenplay, the movie was nominated across the board for acting-- best actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, and for that matter casting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Ithaca, which is a remake of the Human Comedy (now that Saroyan is dead), the main story and characters are preserved, but to me it doesn't look like Saroyan. In the book's classic illustrations by Don Freeman, Mrs. Macauley is older-looking and certainly not an attractive but obvious plastic-surgery veteran like Meg Ryan. Grogan is older-looking too. The character brought most successfully to the screen is Ulysses, although he shouldn't be losing his baby teeth if, as the dialog says, he's four. He's remarkable.
The visuals are, to my taste, too expressionistic. The telegraph office is huge, the roads are wide, and things are too big in general except where Marcus the faraway soldier is involved. All the scenes with Marcus are crowded. That does emphasize the contrast between Ithaca and where Marcus is, but Marcus is not remote enough. Because there are continual voice-overs from his letters, I think the audience doesn't appreciate his absence as a factor. Even the dead father isn't completely absent, and although he adds a sorrowful note, this unkillable family togetherness diminishes the philosophical message that our human condition is one of loneliness and we must actively reach out.
On the one hand, I expected a dustier, less prosperous-looking Ithaca. On the other hand, I was surprised that the choice of music verged on primitivity. More Appalachian than Californian.
I think that a more realistic movie might have worked better, because of the need to carry some dialogue that can, if not handled right, sound unrealistically divorced from what everyday people really say. People declaiming unrealistic-sounding dialogue amidst unrealistic-looking scenery may be fine for the stage but it's difficult to sell on the screen.
Still, the movie tries to be respectful of the original. It even includes some salutes to matters that only readers of the book will fully appreciate-- such a mention of unripe apples, referencing a whole episode involving unripe apricots in the book. I hope that since Saroyan is no longer alive to object, Hollywood will continue to mine his canon.
The big problem was the story. Nina in the movie has two problems. She's suffering as a black woman, and she isn't mentally stable. We get a hint at the very beginning that maybe discrimination is what undermined her sanity (although in reality the Curtis Institute still denies it rejected her on racial grounds, and the fact is the Institute was not closed to black women). But despite reminders of the political situation, she seems to embrace her neuroses rather than struggle against them, so an opportunity for drama is lost. She's a law unto herself, either she takes her medication or she doesn't, and there isn't a lot of cause-and-effect for the audience to cling to.
We do see a bit of cause-and-effect when Dr. King is assassinated and she appears to respond by writing "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead." Unfortunately, Nina Simone in reality didn't write that song.
At what sounds like a crucial moment, her career has bottomed out and someone says "She has to deliver truth again. If she does, she can do whatever she wants." But the remark raises your eyebrows because we hadn't seen a stage at which she delivers something other than truth. And when she agrees to start living clean, on her way to a comeback, it seems like a whim triggered by nothing in particular.
If I could go back in time with the scriptwriter, I'd tell her to rebuild the story around that "She has to deliver truth again" crisis and to give it a clearer before-and-after with more sense of a changed attitude. But maybe that would be an even less accurate movie.
So here's a documentary with more than a little pain in it, and as one of the interviewees notes, it's in contrast to a lot of Mati Caspi's music and public persona-- which is often rich in fun and humor. What the film is missing is the fun side. I suppose it is intended primarily for an audience who knows Caspi's work and who takes the fun for granted. There is somber coverage of the death of Ehud Manor, a soulmate and a talented lyricist (although seldom profound) who worked with Caspi a great deal, and the implication is that Caspi without Manor has been at a loss, although Caspi in the past produced brilliant work with other lyricists as well.
The points of view of Caspi's three wives are missing-- not only the vexatiously remembered first two, but even the last one, whom he warmly praises. But as the many tight close-ups of Caspi's face imply as he is interviewed, the movie is about his own point of view. It presents that point of view well. A broader documentary would be welcome, but in such a small country, with little funding available, we should be thankful that this film exists.