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Three Israeli films to premiere at TIFF

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Sanfur, played by Sahdi Marei, right, is a Shin Bet agent and the brother of a wanted militant in Bethlehem.

There are three movies out of Israel being featured at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, running Sept.5 to 15.

The fateful contract between a secular Israeli army officer and a devout young Holocaust survivor has profound and unexpected consequences in A Place in Heaven, a sprawling, decades-spanning epic from director Yossi Madmony, director of Restoration.

A Place in Heaven, which gets its world premiere at the festival, spans 40 years, three wars, and countless characters. The genesis of the story is based on a particular, and peculiar, tenet of Jewish law that allows for the trade of a person’s place in heaven.


In the nascent years of Israel, an outstanding officer nicknamed Bambi (Alon Aboutboul) returns from a mission. He is met by a young army cook, a religious Holocaust survivor who believes there’s a special place in heaven for those willing to sacrifice their lives for others. The cook offers the officer a month’s worth of tasty shakshuka, his favourite meal, in exchange for his seat in heaven – a trade the secular soldier is only too happy to make.

Madmony’s exploration of the ensuing decades of the soon-to-be general’s life – his sacrifices in pursuit of the woman he loves, his aching desire for a son, his inability to mould that son in his own image – shows us a personal history inextricably entwined with the history of a nation. In both, frailty, pride, and sheer stubbornness abound.

Madmony is fearless in tackling big themes: parenthood, death, and the fear that one’s legacy is not exactly turning out as one had hoped. In doing so, he provides us with a gripping, densely layered tale of love, betrayal, and faith, as told through the eyes of a father and son locked within a devotion to, and denial of, each other. 

*   *   *

Lewis Carroll meets Carol Reed in The Wonders, a dizzyingly funny and fantastical farce from Israeli director Avi Nesher, about a good-natured slacker who becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine conspiracy in the weird criminal-religious underbelly of Jerusalem.


Anything can happen in Jerusalem. Just ask Ariel Navon (Ori Hizkiah), a bartender, art-school dropout and compulsive cartoonist whose pleasantly mundane existence is turned upside down late one night after he spots a strange flash of blue light emanating from an apparently vacant building.

His investigation yields an encounter with a dazed man who looks like Rasputin, but turns out to be famed modern-day prophet Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi). Is Rabbi Knafo being held against his will? And who would do such a thing?

Soon, a private investigator (Adir Miller) and his mysterious and lovely redheaded client (Yuval Scharf) are roping Ariel into planting hidden cameras in Rabbi Knafo’s hideaway and allowing his apartment to be used for surveillance.

It’s hard to know who to trust. It’s even harder for Ariel to suppress his curiosity as he delves into the weird criminal-religious labyrinth of Israel’s dizzyingly diverse capital.

Veteran director Nesher’s latest is a hoot. There are red herrings, unlikely alliances, and cartoons that come to life when no one is looking.

Given its irreverent genre mixing, The Wonders, which gets its international premiere at the festival, shows a kinship with the films of the Coen brothers and Woody Allen, and the novels of Michael Chabon.

Both Hizkiah and Miller are stand-up comics with impeccable timing, and they fully commit to creating complex, compelling characters with much at stake.

A cautionary tale about gurus and a tribute to one of the world’s most beautiful but little-understood cities, The Wonders will yank you down into its own cleverly conceived rabbit hole. 

*   *   *

One of the most unnervingly lucid films to be made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem is a bold and bracing feature debut.

Shifting between Israeli and Palestinian societies to tell its story of secret strategies, precarious alliances and terrible betrayals, this gripping thriller plunges us into a milieu of family, terror and espionage.

Recruited as an informant by the Shin Bet, a young Palestinian man finds himself caught between two very different kinds of loyalty when he discovers that his employers are plotting to assassinate his radical brother.

Adler spent years interviewing Shin Bet officers and Palestinian militants to create this complex, intelligent and timely tragedy.

At the centre of Bethlehem’s fraught geometries is Sanfur (Sahdi Marei), the little brother of wanted Palestinian militant Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman and an informant engaged by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service.

Sanfur was only 15 when first recruited by Shin Bet officer Razi (Tsahi Halevi), and the two quickly developed an intimate, almost fraternal relationship, one that granted Sanfur more tenderness, respect, and attention than he ever found at home. Still, as the Shin Bet’s plot to assassinate Ibrahim heats up, Sanfur finds his loyalties hopelessly divided. Tensions escalate, leading to a brutal climax that offers no escape from the morass, but deepens our understanding of it.

Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers helped familiarize western audiences with the Shin Bet. Bethlehem takes us one step closer. Adler, who worked for Israeli army intelligence for several years, co-wrote the script with Ali Waked, a Muslim journalist.

It will have you talking, and thinking, long after the credits roll.

Visit tiff.net/thefestival for scheduling information.

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