There is a strain of narrative cinema that aspires to the conditions of lyric poetry. Densely allusive, rhythmically complex, frequently abstract and personal to the point of opacity, it can range from the downright magical (think Andrei Tarkovsky at his best) to the thunderously ponderous. Either way, it is not a type of filmmaking one readily associates with Amos Gitai.
For all of his other narrative complexities, Israel’s best-known filmmaker is a hardheaded realist whose background in architecture has made him a master of the purpose-built film, a film that has something very specific to say and to do, says it and does it, then waits for your response. His is a materialist cinema, in the philosophical sense, rooted in the Israeli reality.
So the last thing one expects from Gitai is a film like his newest work, “Carmel,” which begins a weeklong run on Jan. 13. As frequent readers of this newspaper know, Gitai began his career in documentary and has shuttled between fiction and nonfiction film throughout his career. Advance word has it that “Carmel” represents Gitai’s attempt to reconcile the two registers in an intensely autobiographical film that parallels his own life with that of Israel. (Given that the director is only two years younger than the Jewish state, it’s not as presumptuous as it sounds.)
But onscreen, “Carmel” is an infinitely more complex and fragmented work than that description conveys. The film is by turns dazzling, infuriating, breathtaking and frustrating, but always by design. Gitai, whose intricately worked-out camera movements and monumentally long takes suggest an artist who is cerebral and controlling, has abandoned himself to a degree of emotional involvement that is quite unusual for him. He has acted in his own films before (quite effectively in “Devarim”), but this time he is playing himself on a set surrounded by family members and actors invoking family members. The stakes are high.
As usual, Gitai doesn’t try to hide his thematic concerns. At the outset of the film, while we watch a montage of photos of him on a beach, Jeanne Moreau intones in French, “This is a poem about people, what they think and what they want, and what they think they want. …” Immediately we have a sense of a protagonist — and an artist — trapped in the film frame, at the edge of the world, with nowhere left to go, while we hear the first of many voices in a half-dozen languages, with both the voices and the languages having some resonance from Gitai’s own history. In short, this looks like a further exploration of familiar Gitai themes.
And it is. After all, almost all great artists work the same furrow over and over. But “Carmel” diverges from Gitai’s usual path almost immediately, taking us back to the Jewish rebellion against Rome that ended at Masada. This subject has been picked over pretty thoroughly by many filmmakers, but Gitai isn’t interested in either historical recreation or a weak metaphor for current events. Instead, we are treated to a violent, phantasmagorical kaleidoscope of multiple superimpositions both visual and aural, a sequence so densely layered as to be almost unreadable as anything but an attempt to distill the fury of ancient combat down to its essence, all cacophony and brutal kinesis.
Then, suddenly, inexplicably, we are in the midst of a modern ruin, the remnants of a contemporary Palestinian or Israeli village, hearing a distant radio playing Arabic dance music that is gradually drowned out by the sound of a helicopter approaching. And we are instantly returned to more familiar territory, one of those dryly witty Gitai long takes in which the camera tracks restlessly back and forth while a group of young Israeli soldiers prepare to move out of a bivouac.
And so on. Such wildly abrupt juxtapositions are typical of a narrative filmmaker straining against the bounds of storytelling, trying to achieve a kind of fierce poetry against the grain of the very idea of narrative. Gitai creates his version of this mix out of the material of his own life — his slightly prickly but loving relationship with his son, who is doing his military service, the complicated relationship with his mother, his cherished memories of childhood on a kibbutz — as well as his previous work and the roots of Israeli history in that rebellion of two millennia ago.
The principal dangers in such films are that the most personal material will be indecipherable to anyone not related to the filmmaker, and that the most deliberately “poetic” juxtapositions will be so arbitrary and hermetic as to be unreadable, perhaps even by their creator. For the most part, Gitai’s background in documentary and his own temperament prevent these things from happening. On the other hand, one frequently senses that “Carmel” is the work of an artist who is trying to stretch himself in directions he just isn’t supposed to go. The film’s jagged form is occasionally disconcerting, as snatches of narrative squirt through our hands like wet soap. One keeps waiting for connections to be made rather than implied.
Or so it seems until the film’s final sequence, a bravura recreation of Amos Gitai’s own life as a series of family snapshots that take him from cradle to middle age, from little cowboy to wounded war veteran, from childhood to fatherhood, from man to artist. It is a remarkably simple sequence, given inestimable emotional resonance by all that we have seen before. And the result is that “Carmel” is both Gitai’s most turbulent film and yet his most serene.
“Carmel” will play at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 54th St.) from Jan. 13-19. For more information, call (212) 708-9400 or go to