The 34th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was a bonanza for Israeli films. Never in its history had films from the Jewish state been so highlighted. Ten of them, showcased in the festival’s inaugural City to City program, focused on Tel Aviv, which marks its centennial this year.
The strongest, most memorable movie was Lebanon, written and directed by Samuel Maoz. Amazingly enough, it’s his first feature film. Lebanon won the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, and it is richly deserved.
The second Israeli film after Waltz with Bashir to be set during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it unfolds in the first hours of that divisive war as a tank, containing four weary soldiers, rumbles north to clear Palestinian gunmen from a hostile Lebanese village.
Much of the action takes place in the dim, filthy, claustrophobic confines of the tank, a roaring, clanking menacing machine that crashes through a banana plantation en route to fulfilling its mission. The soldiers – Assi the commander, Shmuel the gunner, Herzl the loader and Yigal the diver – feel the tension of the moment keenly. They’re scared, confused and argumentative.
When armed Palestinians in a BMW sedan open fire, the gunner hesitates, with bloody results. Chastened by this incident, the tankists launch a shell at an oncoming truck, badly wounding an innocent Lebanese civilian transporting live chickens in cages.
Black smoke and dust rise from the village they enter. It has just been bombed by the air force. Corpses are strewn about and a frantic, partially dressed mother looks for her five-year-old child.
Assi is under instructions not to use white phosphorous shells and thus break international law, but he ignores the order.
A hostile rocket slams into the tank, and the screen goes black. Shortly after a captured and obviously frightened Syrian commando is lowered into the tank, a sinister looking member of the Phalange, the Christian militia allied with Israel, threatens to torture him to death.
Confusion, fear and panic reign when the soldiers are informed that they have strayed into Syrian lines. In revealing closeups, the camera pans on their grimy, sweaty faces. Facing the prospect of dying on the battlefield, one of the tankists pleads for his mother, while another soldier retreats into himself in a semi-catatonic state.
In bold, riveting, graphic brushstrokes, Moaz captures the visceral horror, boredom and uncertainty of warfare. Lebanon is a cinematic achievement of the first rank.
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Bena, by Niv Klainer, is suffused with melancholy.
Amos (Shmuel Vilonzi), a widower, lives alone with his schizophrenic son, Yurik (Michael Moshonov), whose behaviour fluctuates. One day, an illegal Thai alien, Bena (Rachel Santillan), enters their lives, changing the dynamics of their household.
Amos treats Yurik with tender, loving care and humours him when the occasion calls for it, such as when Yurik decides to build an igloo in Antarctica. But once Bena, a serene and attractive woman, arrives, Yurik feels pangs of love, and Amos hires her as Yurik’s live-in companion.
Since Yurik’s behaviour is less than normal, he grows violent, and in one uncomfortable episode, he throws himself sexually on Bena. These incidents tax Amos’ patience and prompt him to wonder whether he should institutionalize his unruly son.
Amos relates to Bena – a married woman whose husband works in a banana grove – as a proper gentleman, even after she provocatively asks him to cut her hair and share his bed. Within the context of the film, Bena’s requests come out of nowhere and seem strange.
Despite these clunkers, Bena, a modest and unpretentious film, manages to leave a viewer with a fairly poignant picture of an unusual father-and-son relationship.
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Danny Lerner’s Kirot is a crime thriller set in Tel Aviv’s dark underbelly.
In a raunchy club, two Russian prostitutes try to escape from their miserable existence as sex slaves. They are caught, thrown into a cell and beaten to within an inch of their lives.
Galia (Olga Kurylenko, the female lead in the last James Bond film), one of the ladies of the night, does not want to go back to the club to ply her trade. Mishka, her brutal pimp, makes her an offer she finds repugnant but can’t refuse. Handing her a pistol, he orders her to kill a man whom the mafia wants to rub out.
In return, Galia will regain her freedom, the money she is owed and the chance to be reunited with her daughter back home in Kiev. Galia carries out her part of the pact, but the mafia reneges. By chance, Galia meets Elinor (Ninet Tayeb), a pregnant Israeli grocery store cashier whose spouse is physically abusing her. The pair find solace in each other’s company, but there are still loose ends to be tied up.
Impregnated with violence, brutality and gunplay, and filled with lowlifes, Kirot casts a lurid spotlight the unsavoury flesh trade in Israel and seems to have been made for an international market. Unfolding mainly in Russian and English, with a few Hebrew phrases and words thrown in, it moves at a fast, scintillating pace, and the actors deliver chillingly credible performances.
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Ajami, by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, derives its name from an Israeli Arab district in Jaffa. The film is about the drug trade, warring families, Arab blood feuds, an Israeli soldier who goes missing in the West Bank, and the driven detective who tries to find him.
Starring amateur Arab and Jewish actors who were whipped into shape by the directors, Ajami underscores the alienation between Jews and Arabs in Israel, notwithstanding the fact that one of the Arab characters has a Jewish girlfriend. In a conversation with a Jew, an Israeli Arab refers to Tel Aviv as “your Tel Aviv,” while a Jew compares Jaffa to the Gaza Strip.
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Amos Gitai, the festival’s favourite Israeli director, is back again with Carmel, which is probably his most personal film in years. Ranging far and wide, Gitai tosses into the mix a Roman army conquering Jerusalem, an Israeli army encampment during the 2006 war in Lebanon, Jewish settlers cruelly cutting down Palestinian olive trees, and an Israeli couple donning gas masks during the 1991 Gulf War.
Between these sequences, Gitai recalls his boyhood, his brush with death in the Yom Kippur War and his mother’s poetic nature.
On a more political plane, Gitai reflects on the “half-truths and half-lies” that Israel and Arab countries peddle to their citizens and observes that the reasons for starting a war are inevitably forgotten.
Anything but linear, Carmel, an art film par excellence, wanders off in all directions, like spinning free verse. Alas, the pieces don’t always fit together in this all-too-self-indulgent, meandering film.
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Phobidilia, directed by Yoav and Doron Paz, takes us into the spiritually suffocating apartment of a phobic young man who prefers virtual reality to the real thing. But as he turns to TV and the Internet for companionship and sex, he realizes that the “perfect world” he has carefully crafted is falling apart and that human relationships are the touchstones of life.
The film makes its point, but it’s hard on the eyes and mind.
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Raphael Nadjari’s documentary, A History of Israeli Cinema, at least part one, is far too academic and dry for a conventional audience. Nadjari is no Ken Burns.
But he traces the development of the industry from 1932 to 1978, from the first commercial film (Oded the Wanderer) to the advent of popular “boureka” comedies in the 1960s.
Nadjari explains the significance of the Holocaust and Otto Preminger’s Exodus on Israeli film, assesses the contributions of filmmakers such as Menahem Golan, Ephraim Golan and Uri Zohar, and analyzes the impact of the Six Day War on Israeli directors.