"Foul Gesture": It's Impossible to Be Nice?

in 25th Miami International Film Festival

by Rob Nelson

Spanning the week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day in Israel, director Tzahi Grad’s ingenious eye-for-an-eye thriller Foul Gesture (Tnu’a Meguna) plays like a political variation on the 1970s rash of urban American vigilante flicks — or like Spielberg’s Munich at half the length and twice the guts. Tight as a drum, this is a movie in which every scene — nearly every line of dialogue, in fact — serves to support a handful of interwoven ideas about masculinity, parenthood, sexual frustration, downward mobility, writers’ block, terrorism, Jewishness, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to mame a few. More broadly speaking, Grad’s insight into the stress-inducing details of modern life is acute enough to cause the nervous viewer some additional anxiety — as befits a movie that on some level means to point its middle finger at us. The film isn’t called Foul Gesture for nothing.              

Indeed, the singular act of the title could refer to any number of foul behaviors; Grad’s movie makes the identification of original sin seem less important than the way in which punishment perpetuates — to the point where the question of who started it becomes both unanswerable and irrelevant. Driving in rush hour traffic, our recently laid-off family-man hero Michael Klienhouse (Gal Zaid) stops in the middle of the road to let his wife out of the car, heedless of other motorists behind. Is his the foul gesture? Or is it the horn-honking of an impatient SUV-driver (Asher Tzarfati) stuck waiting for Michael’s poky wife Tamar (Keren Mor)? Or her subsequently hoisted middle-finger? Or the incensed driver’s demolition of the Klienhouses’ car door? Or Michael’s retaliatory act of scraping his enemy’s SUV with a lead pipe? Or … oops, pardon me, let’s bow our heads in prayer for just a moment until the Memorial Day siren passes … Peace on earth, good will to all … Then bang — back to our previously scheduled war, already in progress.            

Effortlessly allegorical, Foul Gesture doesn’t include mention of religious and national holidays in order to excuse Michael for his increasingly violent actions, only to suggest that some, including Michael himself (or we in the audience?), might feel justified–by God, country, and history — in pointing the finger elsewhere. As this macho pissing match continues to escalate, Grad momentarily contrives to cross the border into the Palestinian territories, where milquetoast Michael gets a gun (literally underground) and the viewer gets a quick lesson in comparative cultures and living conditions. Further proving his directorial skill, Grad somehow lightens the load with disarming humor. “Dad was going full speed ahead and then boom!” exclaims Michael’s kindergartener, clearly learning more from Dad’s ill-tempered righteousness than from school. When Michael’s nemesis — a thick, cackling, two-faced entrepreneur known alternately as Dreyfus and Danny Ben-Moshe — says in a near whisper, “It’s going to get a little physical”, the understatement is both chilling and hilarious. (Note to those keeping score: Dreyfus/Ben-Moshe, whatever his faults, does go out of his way to make sure the kindergartener gets ice cream.)        

Will the real terrorist please stand up? Michael, brilliantly played by Zaid, is a middle-class Jewish Israeli father who looks like a skinhead gangster from the film’s first jittery frames of the man pacing his family’s dirty laundry-strewn apartment with suspiciously hunched shoulders. (And what’s up with that dripping garbage bag he’s got?) Where Michael is newly unemployed and palpably desperate to prove himself (to his testosterone-loving spouse and sexy young babysitter not least), police-protected Dreyfus casually lords over an entertainment complex called the Magic Garden, imposing himself on passersby even as he hobbles with a cane. Eventually a final straw is drawn–though, in keeping with Grad’s calculated ambiguity, it can’t be said what color it is or what length. The movie ends with flags flying, fireworks bursting, and a man’s smile cracking unsettlingly, uncertainly. Are we satisfied now?

Rob Nelson