Many veteran observers of Israeli film try to discern trends in new releases as a clue to the mood of the country. Filmmakers tend to be less circumspect about their views. On the other hand, as this year’s Israel Film Center Festival, its sixth installment, should remind even recidivists like this reporter, in a nation where a year’s output of feature films may not amount to two dozen, one is not working from a statistically significant sample.
At most, one can safely venture that the films in this year’s festival (which opens Tuesday, June 5 and runs through June 12) is a guarded observation that there seem to be more films about the effects of domestic life on Israelis than tales of the Middle East conflict. One thing that is clear from those six movies is that the Israeli cinema’s hot streak is in no danger of ending.
Take, for instance, “The Testament,” a compelling first feature from journalist and producer Amichai Greenberg. Greenberg’s film centers on the dilemma of Yoel (Ori Pfeffer in a marvelously nuanced and subtle performance), a charedi researcher and historian who works for an agency involved in Holocaust restitution cases. In the course of investigating the site of an alleged massacre of Jews in 1945 Austria, he stumbles across a secret involving his mother, a particularly close-mouthed survivor of the death camps. This secret threatens to unravel his whole life and identity. In order to find answers, he guardedly misuses access to confidential files while straining to find the truth about the massacre site under a strict and unhelpful deadline.
Greenberg treats this story with a sober, measured pace that seemingly belies the tensions bubbling on and under the surface of Yoel’s quest. There are moments of genuine suspense balanced against a chilly mise-en-scene of modern office spaces, a nicely achieved see-saw between the blood-soaked realities of the past and the seemingly antiseptic present. The moral quandaries Yoel faces are delineated intelligently, and Pfeffer’s performance is deftly constructed around his internal struggles.
The result is one of the best films of the first part of 2018, taut and thoughtful. The ending, while totally reasonable and quite satisfying, feels a little pat. Except for that proviso, “The Testament” is an exceptional debut.
The festival’s opening night film, “Shelter,” written and directed by Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “The Lemon Tree”), is another of his perspicuous excursions into a decent, liberal humanism that, like his previous work, flies in the face of the deep divisions tormenting Israel and Palestine. It is entirely to his credit that Riklis keeps insisting that a peaceful denouement is still a realistic possibility in the Middle East, and his new film uses the unlikely vehicle of a post-Le Carre-style spy thriller to offer that point of view. The film, which is set during one of the Lebanon conflicts, sends Naomi (Neta Riskin), a reliable but damaged Mossad operative, to Hamburg to babysit Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), an undercover asset who has supplied high-grade intelligence against Hezbollah. Her former comrades want her dead, so she is awaiting recovery from plastic surgery, a new identity and a flight to Toronto for a safe new life.
Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems in the shiny modern urban world with its shimmering but unreliable surfaces. Naomi’s contact (Yehuda Almagor) and her boss (Lior Ashkenazi at his most oleaginous) are strangely unhelpful and a Hezbollah assassination team are on the prowl. Riklis, whose affinity with his female protagonists is one of the great strengths of his previous work, focuses a lot of screen time on the slow process by which the two women overcome their initial mutual distrust, and this is the best material in the film. He also handles the spycraft and suspense more than competently, but the film’s twist ending is easily anticipated and, more to the point, the emotional ramifications are undercut by his use of dream sequences in a few key moments of the movie. In the end, “Shelter” is an entertaining exercise that should have been much more.
“Azimuth” is another directorial debut, this time by the dependably energetic Mike Burstyn. If you were expecting a lively musical comedy (he began his career in Yiddish theater musicals), you’re in for a shock, albeit a pleasant one. “Azimuth” is essentially a two-hander, a tough-minded wartime stalemate that pits an Israeli sergeant (Yiftach Klein) against an Egyptian rifleman (Sammy Sheikh) in an abandoned UN outpost on the last day of the Six-Day War. Despite the fact that the cease-fire has already ended hostilities, the two men do their level best to kill one another. Burstyn uses the complicated geography of the set brilliantly and the action and suspense are thrilling. If that were all there were to the film, it would be a smart parable on the absurdity of modern war, a nice featurette reminiscent of a “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” episode. Unfortunately, Burstyn felt the need to make “Azimuth” a short feature (about 75 minutes long) and adds flashbacks depicting the home lives of both men, dissipating the tension and drowning the film’s message in sentimentality.
“Longing,” “Saving Neta” and the closing-night film, “Outdoors,” all have significant virtues and oddly similar domestic dilemmas revolving around the aging of the boomer generation.
All of Savi Gabizon’s films could be entitled “Longing,” and his new movie is almost overwhelmed by the kind of death-and-sadness angst that made “Nina’s Tragedies,” released in 2005, a small delight of ensemble playing. Shai Avivi (sort of an Israeli Larry David) goes out on a date with an ex-girlfriend (Assi Levy) he hasn’t seen in 20 years; she informs him that he left her with a son. One small problem; the son has died in an auto accident. Choked with guilt, he looks her up and becomes involved in a series of controversies involving the boy’s infatuation with one of his teachers (Neta Riskin), the suicide of another teen and so on. The film’s structure is a series of meandering bits of melodrama that never really come together, and it never really overcomes the sheer strangeness of some of its basic premises.
“Saving Neta,” directed and co-written by Nir Bergman (“Broken Wings”), is more artful in its enigmatic narrative architecture, with four episodes revolving around the mysterious title character (Benny Avni) and his impact on the lives of four very different women. It’s a low-key film that is reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” but without the melancholy, biting wit of that underrated work. Avni is something of a cipher, in large part by dint of the screenplay, and the individual episodes work better separately than as a whole.
“Outdoors” is literally a film about architecture. Yaara (Noa Koler) and Gili (Udi Razzin) are a youngish couple with a daughter and have their hearts set on a new house outside the turmoil of the city. Asaf Saban, who wrote and directed the film, his first fiction feature, takes us through an increasingly turbulent year during which they undergo all the usual problems — intransigent builders, difficult choices (plain slate tiles in the kitchen or sesame?), the potential for extra-marital wanderings and a second pregnancy. Saban handles it all with a certain muted competency, and Koler serves notice that her magnificent performance in “The Wedding Plan” was no fluke.
The Israel Film Center Festival runs from June 5-12. Most of the screenings take place at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue). “The Testament” will also be shown at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J. For information, go to jccmanhattan.org/film/israel-film-center-festival/.