There is a new generation of Israeli filmmakers out there, and its practitioners are taking the Israeli cinema in some fascinating new directions. Whether it’s the insider’s view of the haredi world given by Rama Burshtein in “Fill the Void,” the deeply disturbed teens in Jonathon Gurfinkel’s “S#x Acts” or the calculated ultra-violence of Aharon Keshales and Navot Pupashado in “Rabies” and “Big Bad Wolves,” these filmmakers are taking a subversive look at elements of Israeli society through the lens of the genre film. You can add another name to that list: Tom Shoval, whose first feature film, “Youth,” is on display in this year’s edition of New Directors/New Films, which runs from March 19-30.
“Youth” is a frequently disturbing blend of family melodrama and crime film in which a rapidly declining middle-class family in a Tel Aviv suburb struggles with growing debts and shrinking income. The father, Moti (Moshe Ivgy, sporting his most hangdog expression), has been unemployed for months, leaving his wife Paula (Shirili Deshe) to work multiple jobs. Their two sons, Yaki (David Cunio) and Shaul (Eitan Cunio) devise a plan that is hair-brained but breathtakingly simple; Yaki is on a brief furlough from the army so, armed with his semiautomatic rifle, the pair kidnap an apparently rich girl (Gita Amely of “S#x Acts”) and plan to demand a sizeable ransom for her safe return.
The kidnapping goes as planned, but the plan is monumentally ill conceived. The brothers transport their prisoner on a public bus, they are unaware that her Orthodox family won’t answer the phone on Shabbat and their scheme is predicated on being able to complete the transaction before Yaki must return to base on Sunday afternoon. In short, the film has all the ingredients for farce.
But Shoval plays it straight, slowly peeling away the layers of certainty from his male protagonists, gradually revealing Moti’s aimless self-pity, and his sons’ pop culture-fueled dime-store machismo. Shaul works at a multiplex, and the film is chockablock with references to the kind of monumentally stupid action fare that has come to dominate American cinema in the past decade. There’s a “Ghost Rider” trailer that proclaims “He was a good father until he got in with the wrong crowd,” and a T-shirt for “Drive Angry.” Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a tribute to Nicholas Cage’s worst career choices until Shaul turns up in a “John Rambo” tee.
From the alternately loving and foolishly careless way that the two siblings handle the gun, you can see that their view of violence has been shaped as much by popular culture as by the militarization of everyday Israeli life. In that respect, the boys are close kin to the testosterone-charged rage-a-holics of the Keshales-Pupashado films. But there is a sense of family feeling and a hesitancy and indecisiveness that sets Yaki and Shaul apart from the cartoonish males of “Big Bad Wolves.”
Rather, “Youth” is about the growing sense of powerlessness that is infiltrating the downwardly mobile Israeli middle class. What one takes away from Shoval’s debut, besides a respect for his craftsmanship, which is significant, is an air of failure, despair and desperation. Like the other recent films mentioned above, “Youth” doesn’t have to mention the Palestinians. It speaks more loudly about the troubled mindset of many Israelis without ever invoking the best-known conflict they face.
The 43rd annual New Directors/New Films series, presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will run March 19-30. Almost all screenings will take place at MoMA (11 W. 53rd St.) or the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.); for specific films, times and venues, go to http://newdirectors.org.