The Two Israeli Winners Religion and Violence By Pablo Utin
by Pablo Utin
Although the Wolgin Prize, given at the Jerusalem Film Festival (JFF), is considered the most prestigious national prize for any Israeli filmmaker, the Haifa Film Festival (HFF) prize is getting bigger and more prestigious every year. Usually, the most important filmmakers in the country arrange their production schedule in order to have their new films ready for Jerusalem in July, and Haifa gets the films that weren’t finished on time in July or those of lesser known directors. Last year, after the JFF rejected Danny Lerner’s independent low budget effort Frozen Days (Yamim Kfuim), the film won the main prize in Haifa. With this decision last year’s jury has given the HFF competition a new definition: Haifa is no longer a festival for less important directors but for new, promising and interesting talents. That’s the reason why Haifa started to accept screenings on video and shows interest in refreshing films trying to defy the conventions of Israeli filmmaking (see Judd Ne’eman’s film, reviewed in Barbara Lorey’s article arrow.), which in the last two years became more conservative and more conventional.
This year the surprise was David Volach’s My Father, My Lord (Khufshat Kaitz) which accordingly won the new prize named “discovery of the festival”, the second most important prize in the Israeli competition. Volach was born in 1970 in the Haredic community in Jerusalem, one of the most orthodox Jewish communities in the country. He studied in a Yeshiva in Bnei Barak, an orthodox neighborhood close to Tel-Aviv. Eleven years ago he left the religious community, became secular and went to Tel-Aviv. My Father, My Lord is his first film. It deals with the world of the Haredic Community in Jerusalem. In the last few years there is a tendency in Israeli cinema to give a more profound and complex representation to the religious community which was neglected by the non-religious left wing filmmakers. Films like Ushpizin, Kadosh and now My Father, My Lord give locals a glimpse of the life in some of the most controversial communities in Israel. The film tells the story of a great rabbi in a Haredic synagogue (played beautifully by Israeli leading actor Assy Dayan). He devoted his life to the study of Torah and Jewish law and therefore becomes estranged to his son and his wife.
The film centers on the characters of the son, Menachem, and the father, Abraham, and focuses on how the curiosity and sensitivity of the son are repressed by the need of the father to turn his son into a strong believer. Both characters have a strong curiosity and thirst for knowledge, but when the kid looks for meaning in the world and in life, the Rabbi finds it in the books. The film begins with an impressive frontal, low angle medium shot of the Rabbi sitting on his desk, surrounded by piles of books which almost block him from our view. The Rabbi is crying in desperation, we don’t know why yet. In the next shots we discover that his son had died. Then the story unfolds from the beginning until it returns to the dead son. During the film there are a lot of allusions to Jewish myths and laws, mainly to the famous sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. According to the Torah God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son in order to prove his faith. At the last moment an angel came front the skies and stopped Abrahams from doing so. Instead of sacrificing his son, Abraham and Isaac together sacrificed a ram. In a symbolic scene Menachem is learning about the Isaac Binding at school and has to glue cartoon figures of the characters involved in the story to the blackboard. He has the figure of the ram in his hands, but even though he tries hard, the ram doesn’t stick to the blackboard. Volach is telling that there won’t be any ram to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place in this story.
The most impressive aspect of the film is its visual language. Using a calm camera and a sensitive, soft lighting, the film follows the prayers and the studying of the Rabbi quietly and immerses the audience effectively in his spiritual and intellectual world. The Rabbi is constantly surrounded by books and blocked by books. But he is not a grotesque character but a person you can identify with, understanding his passion for the Torah and his devotion to God. The boy tries to reach him through his love and curiosity. He wants to make his father proud but also to understand life, to love the world and be connected to it. He loves pretty images (pagan pictures in his father’s view) and little animals which don’t have a soul as his father insists to explain to him. There are things the Rabbi cannot explain, but he is certain that if it’s God’s will they must be done and accepted. Humans cannot understand everything in the world, they are not more than the servants of God. The film argues that the love of God interferes sometimes with the love of human beings. The death of the child is sudden and meaningless. It’s Menachem’s curiosity for life that leads him to his death. The father isn’t responsible for the death of his son in a direct way. The film wants to show that our passion for God and maybe any other belief or ideology can result in our estrangement from the human beings who need us the most. In the end, with the death of his son, the Rabbi himself has to learn and to accept the lesson he was trying to teach his son. There are things we don’t understand but we don’t question them. God’s will was to sacrifice his son, now Abraham has to cope with the remaining emptiness and to accept the will of God.
The grand prize of the festival went to Foul Gesture (Tnu’a Meguna), the second film by Tzahi Grad (Giraffes), an actor who turned into a director. The film is a satiric thriller about a simple regular guy, Michael Kleinhouse, who gets into a struggle with the important, respectable, powerful and influential Dreyfus after his wife flipped her finger at the aforementioned big shot. The simple act of flipping the finger to this powerful man triggers a series of acts of revenge which is both comic and despairing. The film is very well scripted and will find a warm reception with the local audiences. His humor is dry and the leading actor Gal Zaid who also co-wrote the script and co-produced the film gives his greatest performance yet. Zaid usually plays the bad guy in Israeli films: the bad cop, the ruthless Shabak agent and the heartless TV producer. In this film he gives a subtle performance based on quirky looks of a depressed man who finds the strength to an absurd fight against bigger forces. His flawless acting is the force that brings the film forward. Grad uses comedy and tension to depict the absurd and meaningless violence which reigns in Israeli society nowadays. Because of its need to amuse, entertain, and “be cool”, Foul Gesture misses the opportunity of becoming a dark, despairing film about violence and the corruption of the human soul. Instead it succeeds in becoming a grotesque critic of contemporary Israel, but it also is a little childish and irresponsible near the end, failing to provoke or dare the viewer and settling for an hour and a half of good entertainment.