The unlikely friendship between a Jewish boy and a British soldier in the waning years of Britain’s mandate in Palestine underpins the plot of Lynn Roth’s tender and nostalgic feature film, The Little Traitor, which is scheduled to open at the Cumberland and the Cineplex Odeon Sheppard on Aug. 19.
The 89-minute movie is mostly set in Jerusalem on the eve of the 1947 United Nations Palestine partition plan and is based on the Amos Oz novel Panther in the Basement.
Exploring universal themes such as patriotism and friendship, and expertly directed, it unfolds in English and Hebrew.
The central character, Avi (Proffy) Liebowitz (Ido Port), is an exceptionally intelligent boy wise beyond his years. The son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, he is an ardent Zionist who yearns to join the anti-British Irgun militia.
In the meantime, he plays war games with his toy soldiers and friends, regularly shouts the nationalist slogan “freedom or death” and daubs the inflammatory words “British Go Home” on a stone wall.
One day, after violating the British curfew, Avi is detained by a portly British sergeant, Steven Dunlap (Alfred Molina), the son of a lay minister. As they talk, they strike up a budding friendship, and Dunlap invites Avi to meet him at a British club for more chats.
A boy who lives in his fervent imagination, Avi is drawn to Dunlap because his father (Rami Heuberger) is so emotionally remote.
Taking up Dunlap’s invitation, Avi discovers that his new-found friend is reading the biblical Book of Samuel and trying to learn the rudiments of Hebrew. Given his interests, Dunlap is certainly different than most British soldiers serving in Palestine. But Avi appears to disappoint Dunlap, preferring comic books to biblical tales and considering the Book of Samuel boring.
Their friendship is strained by a British crackdown on the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, but their bonds remain intact and their conversations continue. Dunlap, in an unguarded moment, predicts that Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine will result in the emergence of a Hebrew state and stoke further tension between Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
Not surprisingly, Avi’s ties with the Briton arouse suspicions among some Jews, prompting Avi to wonder whether his supposed British enemy, Dunlap, is more of a friend than his Jewish friends and whether he and his parents should leave Palestine.
Port delivers an amazing performance as a 12-year-old boy who navigates the shoals of friendship, patriotism and romance. is just right as a sensitive and avuncular man who has a knack for making personal connections. Heuberger acquits himself well as Avi’s severe father, while Gilya Stern glints with compassion as his protective mother.
The Little Traitor is family fare at its best, a film that cares about story line, historical accuracy and character development. And the elegiac musical score is terrific.