If this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was any indication, Israeli cinema is having a strong year.
The four Israeli titles at the festival included two sensitive dramas about father-son relationships and a romance that confronted a difficult subject.
Finally, the most anticipated drama to arrive from Israel – Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot – riveted, delighted and devastated its audience, when it screened with Maoz and star Lior Ashkenazi in attendance.
The films had an interesting theme in common: each dealt with the death of a major character poignantly and unexpectedly.
In the first scene of Longing, the new film from filmmaker Savi Gabizon, a successful, middle-aged Israeli named Ariel (Shai Avivi) reunites with his old lover, Ronit (Asi Levi). During their lunch, Ronit reports that when they broke up, she was pregnant with his child.
Ariel wants to meet the boy, Adam, but he died tragically in a car accident. So, the curious father heads up to the town of Acre, in the hope of discovering more about his son. Much of Longing is episodic, with Ariel interviewing various people he had never before met, such as his son’s ex-girlfriend and school principal, as well as a teacher of whom Adam was particularly fond.
This journey of discovery and making up for lost time is exceptionally acted. Avivi is terrific as a man romanticizing his own romantic son. Through the details we learn about Adam and Ariel, it is easy to see the ties that connect two men who never got the chance to meet.
Longing has several touching moments, but it also has a wry and sometimes vulgar sense of humour.
That darkly comic and even puerile sensibility was also integral to Scaffolding, which screened in Toronto after debuting in Cannes earlier this year.
Matan Yair’s first feature concentrates on a charming, if easily distracted, teenager named Asher (Asher Lax). Asher’s father, who runs a scaffolding business, is sick, but comforted to know that his son will inherit his company. However, Asher is not committed to this line of work, especially after he forms a bond with his literature teacher, Rami (Ami Smolarchik).
Yair is also a literature teacher and the crackling dynamic between professor and pupil rings with authenticity. Also, when one considers that Asher Lax, an ex-student of Yair, is playing a dramatized version of himself, it is not too surprising that he projects such soulfulness.
It would be unwise to spoil which character in Asher’s periphery dies during the coming-of-age drama, but its repercussions deeply affect the protagonist and lead to an unforgettable final scene.
Meanwhile, the first film from heralded Israeli casting director Limor Shmila, Montana, continues with the introspection inherent in Longing and Scaffolding.
Noa Biron plays Efrat, a 20-something returning to her hometown of Acre after her grandfather dies.
Montana takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to help the viewer decipher the reasons why Efrat has stayed away from Acre for so many years, and why there is such tension between her and some of the townspeople.
Slowly, the viewer is filled in on this family’s dark secrets. The staid dialogue between Efrat and some of the characters initially seems to lack purpose. But once we learn some key information, these earlier moments gain retroactive meaning.
The writer/director trusts her audience to fill in the gaps and pauses between the sentences, a sign of Shmila’s confidence as a storyteller.
Finally, the best film to arrive from Israel – and also the finest film that played at TIFF, in this critic’s opinion – was the psychological drama, Foxtrot.
We can expect that the film, which won Silver Lion (second place) at the Venice Film Festival and Best Picture at the Ophir Awards in Israel, will be distributed in North America next year. Foxtrot is also representing Israel in the race for the best foreign film Oscar.
However, since the film relies on many surprising plot developments, one should be careful not to know too much about it before Foxtrot opens in theatres.
Nevertheless, this reviewer can share that the film moves between two settings. The first is a spacious apartment, which is home to Michael and Dafna Feldman (played by Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler). There, the couple learns that their son, Jonathan, a soldier, has died.
The second setting is a checkpoint by a sparsely travelled road in Israel, where four bored Israeli soldiers are stationed.
Maoz’s balance between the devastating and the comic is miraculous, as we move between two very different perspectives of war and trauma in Israel. Eventually, one comes to recognize the connections between these two realms.
Before Foxtrot premiered in Toronto, it had been the target of scorn from Israeli Cultural Minister Miri Regev, who claimed the film misrepresents and disparages the Israeli Defence Forces. During the post-film conversation, the director briefly mentioned the controversy.
The audience at Foxtrot’s well-attended screening at the Elgin Theatre didn’t seem to mind. They gave the war drama extended, deserved applause