Films of Faith and Poverty

in 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival

by Yair Raveh

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (USA, 2015), that tells the story of The Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson, had its Israeli Gala premiere at the 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival. The film, quite expectedly, ends with Wilson’s 1988 song “Love and Mercy”. The lyrics go like this: “I was sittin’ in a crummy movie / With my hands on my chin / All the violence that occurs / Seems like we never win / Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight.”

After seven days at the festival, I too was yearning for some love and mercy. Oh My God, festival films are so bleak! Taken in small portions they offer a welcome realistic and sometimes poetic look at life that is often absent from multiplexes and most commercial movies, but after days of endless viewing one’s sensitivity to the plight of humanity can get quite numbed down. Wanted: a festival of happy films.

Take animals, for instance. It seems, festival films love to kill them. During my festival days I saw a cow slaughtered in Tikkun, a pig butchered in Ixcanul, a donkey and a dog killed in The Lobster, another dog gnawed in Sivas, a deer skinned in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and a goldfish die in Project of the Century. Film festivals – not for the queasy.

Watching dozens of films in a short of time causes weird side effects. All of a sudden, random films start talking with each other. Common topics emerge. At this year’s festival the prevailing topic in international films was economy. Films dealt with poverty and the exploitation of human and natural resources. It became particularly interesting when I saw the exact same scene in two completely different movies, from different continents. In both Land and Shade (La tierra y la sombra) from Colombia and The Lesson (Urok) from Bulgaria a woman walks up to her boss to demand her over-due pay. The boss promises she will be paid tomorrow. She replies that that’s what he said yesterday. He says that it’s the bank’s fault. And then several days later she loses her job. Same sequence of events, different movies. The harsh life under economical strain was a leitmotif that ran through many of the films I saw.

A rare film that offered love and mercy and also a beautiful and poetic cinematic experience was Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups – the best film I saw at the festival. Malick has gone completely abstract here, vanquishing a narrative altogether, and making an episodic film about the quest of a Hollywood filmmaker (Christian Bale) who is about to get a movie deal that will make him tremendously rich, but he feels something is missing in his life, emotionally and spiritually. Malick uses the symbols of the Tarot Cards as headlines for each chapter, and loosely bases the film’s structure on John Bunyan’s 1678 religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. The lead character in the book is called Christian, as is the name of lead actor. Pure coincidence?

Indeed, Knight of Cups is an allegory that unfolds like a dream, zipping back and forth through time. It’s a deeply spiritual film that transcends its messages through the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Side note: Between My Mother (Mia madre) and Knight of Cups, the JFF was filled with the music of Arvo Part.

One of the stand-out surprises in the festival was the American independent film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, directed by Chloe Zhao – or “Malick Junior”, as I lovingly titled her debut film. At presence are the dream like quality of Malick’s earlier films, as well as the constant use of golden-hour photography and voice over. The film explores the life on a Native-American reservation in North Dakota, where the young either dream to leave or find themselves in prison, while one girl, our protagonist, finds an interest in her ancestral culture. Our FIPRESCI jury awarded this film with the prize for best first feature.

The stand-out Israeli film was Tikkun by Avishai Sivan, which walked away with most of the festival’s major awards (and is next to be competing for the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival). Shot in gorgeous black and white by Shai Goldman (who also shot The Band’s Visit and The Kindergarten Teacher), Sivan’s film returns to the themes the director dealt with in his first feature, The Wanderer. Once again, Tikkun is a film that deals with faith, religion and the temptation of the flesh. Haim-Aaron is a young Hassidic Yeshiva “Bucher” (boy) who is almost killed after experiencing his first erection and falling head first in the bathtub. His father resuscitates him, but it’s a different Haim-Aaron that returns to life, one that is less interested in his Bible studies and more interested in exploring sin. Is it Tikkun (rectification) or perhaps a Dybbuk (possession by a spirit)? Tikkun, with its deliberate pace and amazing depiction of Hassidic life, as if it were an Ingmar Bergman film, is a true masterpiece.

Edited by Yael Shuv