I have often wondered in print why, though there are more Jews in New York than in Tel Aviv, Israel films have had tough sledding here commercially. In this year of convulsive change in Israel, things might be different. Joseph Cedar’s Time of Favor –which opens the 17th Israeli Film Festival at the Directors’ Guild of America Theater on Feb. 22–has already swept Israel’s equivalents of our Academy Awards. At a time when the West Bank settlements are under fire, both within Israel and throughout the world, Mr. Cedar provides an insider’s view of the Orthodox-Jewish settler mentality, as well as the deep distrust of the Orthodox minority by the secular Jewish authorities.
Still, the characters tend to be more emblematic than idiosyncratic, and the story thereby comes perilously close to functioning as a preordained allegory on the fruits of fanaticism. Menachem (Aki Avni), the protagonist, is a dedicated and trusted religious officer in the Israeli army. Pini, his best friend, has not excelled in the military because of his diabetes; his widely acknowledged genius lies in his interpretation of the Torah. Rabbi Meltzer (Asi Dayan), a messianic nationalist, admires Pini and wants him to marry his daughter, Michal (Tinkerbell). The strong-minded Michal tells Pini she won’t be her father’s academic prize. Indeed, she loathes her father for his callous indifference to her late mother’s death and to her wish to leave the settlement for the city; then as now, the Rabbi’s mission comes first. Besides, it is Menachem whom Michal loves, but he is a student of the Rabbi and the best friend of Pini.
Matters are at this impasse when Michal leaves home and becomes an agent in the Secret Service. When Pini, out of religious passion and the pain Michal has caused him, embarks on a suicide mission to destroy the mosque on the Holy Mount, it is Menachem who is arrested as a co-conspirator. What is most interesting in this contrived turn of events is the ferocity with which Menachem is persecuted without being prosecuted.
No Miranda warnings here. Though no Palestinians are shown in the film, one can sense the life-and-death desperation in which both Israelis and Palestinians are now engulfed.
Mr. Cedar, who wrote the film’s screenplay and was himself educated in a yeshiva, has chosen to question the ultimate implications of his parents’ passionate beliefs, particularly their Biblical injunctions to colonize the West Bank. One wonders what Mr. Cedar thinks of the recent resurgence of Ariel Sharon in Israeli politics, and what that portends for Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians. The daily headlines tell a depressing story of growing intransigence on both sides, and all the good will and sanity celebrated in Time of Favor seems somehow beside the point. The Israel Film Festival continues at the Clearview Cinema on East 59th Street through March 8.
Jean-Pierre Ameris’ Bad Company ( Mauvaises Fréquentations ), from a screenplay by Alain Layrac, may remind some viewers of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), which I found hateful at the time for the smugness and self-satisfaction with which a teenager cynically deflowered under-age virgins and infected them with the AIDS virus. Add to that the tacit complicity of the filmmaker in telling the story from the male point of view, despite the presence in the cast of the feisty Chloë Sevigny as a devirginized and infected victim who chose to fight back.
Bad Company tells a similar story of male exploitation of a teenage female from the point of view of 14-year-old Delphine (Maud Forget), who falls in love for the first time with Laurent (Robinson Stévenin), a self-absorbed nihilist with a pose of suicidal despair over a broken home and parental neglect. Delphine is drawn into Laurent’s circle by her close friend Olivia (Lou Doillon), who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Laurent’s friend Alain (Maxime Mansion). Olivia is, comically, much taller than Delphine, whose small stature adds to her lack of self-esteem. Yet Delphine does not come from a broken home or a dysfunctional family. Her father, René (François Berléand), tries his best to communicate with Delphine, but his feeble attempts to impose discipline are constantly being undermined by his wife’s “liberal” indulgence.
Things reach a sordid pass when Laurent and Alain persuade Delphine and Olivia to perform 100 blowjobs on their male high-school classmates to finance a vacation trip to Jamaica, the supposed carefree land of Bob Marley. Many critics have gagged (if you’ll pardon the expression) at this plot development, even though it is not graphically depicted. If I chose not to be offended, it is because Ms. Forget takes Delphine into the spiritual realm of l’amour fou by suggesting a sacrificial ordeal that constitutes a mortification of the flesh. It is clear that she is the prime mover; Olivia goes along purely out of loyalty to Delphine and has deep misgivings about the whole project. In the end, Laurent is preparing to betray both girls by leaving them behind. When the police intervene, in the manner reported in the French press in a similar case in the mid-1990’s, Delphine is finally freed of her obsession with Laurent.
There is also a curious subplot involving Delphine’s grandmother, Mamie (Micheline Presle), who has filled Delphine’s head with tales of her late husband’s death as a Resistance hero during the German occupation. Delphine is particularly struck by the detail of the Gestapo’s chopping off his fingers, one by one, to make him reveal Resistance secrets, though her grandfather never betrays his comrades. Hence, Delphine refuses to blame Laurent for the whole plan, as Olivia and Alain end up doing, and she furthermore declares that she will never betray her lover, even if her fingers are chopped off. Her passion has led her into a lurid activity, but she feels ennobled enough to assume the role of a Resistance heroine.
Though the grandmother’s story struck me as a bit of a stretch factually, it does represent an attempt to give an adolescent girl an inner life and a capacity in her soul for self-sacrifice. This may be the biggest difference between French and American movies on the subject: the youthful hunger for spiritual substance.
A Man, A Woman, 117 Cows
Harry Sinclair’s The Price of Milk gives the impression of being a film that was made up as it went along–and if I choose to be kinder to this degree of extreme improvisation than I should be, it may be because I have never been to New Zealand, and thus any strangeness imputed to it by a local filmmaker finds me with no authority to dispute it. If someone tried the same thing with Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare I know all too well, or with Shellbank Basin, a Howard Beach waterway I know even better, I would be up in arms over the liberties taken with logic and reality.
The production notes describe Mr. Sinclair’s setting in fairy-tale terms as a faraway land of fertile green valleys. Once upon a time in this blessed place there lived two lovers, Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Rob (Karl Urban), along with their 117 cows and a precious quilt to keep them warm at night. Lucinda and Rob seem to be living the ever-after part of their relationship even though they are not married.
The trouble starts when Rob proposes to Lucinda, who inexplicably feels that the sparkle may be fading from their love. She drives in her pickup truck to seek the advice of Drosophila (Willa O’Neill), a Foodmark clerk who eventually turns out to be the serpent in the garden. Already, we have been treated to the comic incongruity of modern machinery with pseudo-ancient storytelling. On the way to see her friend, Lucinda runs over a Maori woman, who rises almost miraculously and flees into the wood with the cryptic warning: “Keep warm.”
Shaken, Lucinda continues into town and discusses her worries about Rob with Drosophila, who reassures her that there is nothing to worry about. But that night, their quilt is mysteriously stolen while Rob and Lucinda are asleep. Taking that as a bad omen, Lucinda returns to Drosophila, and the treacherous friend suggests that Lucinda put Rob’s love through a series of tests to prove his devotion to her. When she takes a bath in a vat of his precious milk, ruining its contents, Rob is at first enraged over her folly, but then joins her joyously in the vat for a round of passion. All seems well until Lucinda, still obsessed with the loss of her quilt, finds it in the Maori woman’s house and bargains away all of Rob’s cows to get it back. At this point, I began to wonder–as does Rob–if Lucinda still had all her marbles. They break up, Rob moves out, and Drosophila seizes the opportunity to run off with him.
Lucinda decides belatedly that she really loves Rob, after all; she loves him unconditionally. He realizes the same thing, and they are magically reunited with the covert help of the Maori woman. During the course of the film, I became obsessed myself with Lucinda’s changing appearance, largely through the color and disposition of her hair. I couldn’t tell if the chameleon effect was part of the plot, or part of the chaotic process of Mr. Sinclair’s improvisations. I was struck also by the tendency in films from New Zealand, as from Australia, to be obsessed much of the time with the guilt of the established white settlers over the injustices inflicted on the aborigines. These ghosts from the past cast a dark shadow, even in a self-styled fairy tale.