Two Israeli Movies

in 62nd International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Gad Abittan

Interesting in many regards, but not completely reaching the very high level set by the films in competition at the 62nd Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival, two Israeli films captured our attention and had very good feedback from the public: Paradise Cruise / The Unforgettables, by Matan Guggenheim, and A Place in Heaven (Makom Be Gan Eden), by Yossi Madmony, which were selected for the International Discoveries program and the Special Screenings program respectively. Having in common the main theme of military service and war as fundamental influences on man’s life and destiny in Israel, the first is a war movie combined with an impossible love story and the second relates a Tsahal officer’s life from the 1950s until today.

Paradise Cruise deals with the intense relationship between Yossi, a former Israeli soldier, and Dora, a French photographer looking for the killer of her Palestinian fiancé. Both are trying to forget about their pasts and create something new. Starting as a love story, it becomes more of a war trauma movie and a suspense thriller to be elucidated. Thedeaths of young Israelis and Palestinians and non-stop funerals in huge cemeteries, presented to us via the detached perspective of Dora (Vahina Giocante, beautiful as always inone of her best roles), let us feel strongly that mournful ritual of Death that seems to characterize and unify Israel as a society. There are no warriors here and no distinction between good and bad people. Here, everyone loses.

Guggenheim spent his military service in a Tsahal combat unit and saw many of his very young brothers-in-arms die in a moment, after an accidental crash between two helicopters. Guggenheim worked seven years on this, his first feature. “It became a part of me”, he explains, “and I became a part of it”. He can use the same words as Yossi (Oz Zehavi, convincing and moving), his alter ego in Paradise Cruise: “I am a natural-born fucked Israeli with all this army and Judaism and patriotism and Zionism and all that WWII shit attached to it. I won’t be remembered as a hero in a picture, staring into the eyes of his crying mother. I have seen so many pictures…” Like some important recent Israeli war films such as Kippur, by Amos Gitai, Beaufort, by Joseph Cedar and Lebanon, by Samuel Maoz, Paradise Cruise, even if it doesn’t have the same impact and artistic success, and in spite of all the fictional dramaturgy, is still a mostly sincere account of a traumatic military experience. Developing the script and directing it must have been a form of personal therapy for Guggenheim. We can expect great things from him in the future.

Madmony’s ambitious and very dense A Place in Heaven, covering the first four decades of Israel’s short history through three wars and some surprising developments, becomes an almost successful opus about the life and death of an IDF officer, an authentic hero, courageous and protective, a father to his soldiers, who call him Bambi, a sweet name for a harsh fighter. But Bambi is also stubborn, macho and even cruel when, in the 1950s, he cold bloodedly kills a wounded Fedayoun, explaining his crime — a total contradiction of the ethics of Tsahal — by saying that he “does to them what they do to us”.

Uncritical but honest and just when describing its characters and history, A Place in Heaven is, unusually for Israeli cinema, full of biblical references, starting with the title. Like Essau in the Bible, Bambi (charismatic Alon Aboutboul seen in Beaufort, which won Best Director at the Berlinale 2007) is so hungry after a dangerous cross-border action, that, for a plate of shaksuka and a spicy oriental omelet, he is ready togive his place in heaven to the cook, in accordance with Jewish tradition and law. He also promises to work one whole year for the father of the woman he loves so as to get her hand in marriage. 40 years later, his son becomes ultra-orthodox and will try to save his father’s soul from hell.

This film is in fact moreabout relationships between fathers and sons than is evident from the beginning. Told as a long flashback, the film starts with a long shot of the horizon, of blue skies, sea, and seagulls, and the “elimination” of Bambi by a Palestinian, probably the son of the Fedayoun Bambi killed 40 years before, played by the same actor, Israeli-Palestinian Tawfik Abou Wael, who is also the talented director of Last Days in Jerusalem and Atash, Tzimaon. Since 1996’s Love Sick on Nana Street (Hole Ahava Meshikun Gimel), by Savi Gabizon, 14 Israeli films have been shown at the Manheim-Heideberg Film Festival: three in competition, five discoveries, three special screenings and two jewels, a category that does not exist anymore, Festivalperlen, an exceptional homage to the new Israeli cinema which gained real international recognition in spite of the debate about the rights and wrongsof Israeli policy and the resentment it creates all around the world.

Edited by José Teodoro