One of the pleasant side benefits of this year’s Israel Film Festival, now in its 25th year, is a profusion of unfamiliar names and even unfamiliar genres
For example, following its debut last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Rabies” is also in the Israeli festival as well, the first Israeli “slasher film,” as first-time directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales have proclaimed. As I noted when it premiered at Tribeca, that label sells the film short by hiding its deadpan humor and overstating its gore quotient, but as a debut feature, it has considerable merit and a radically different take on its own violence from what you would find in a comparable American film.
Moshe Alpert is another name that will be unfamiliar to American filmgoers, but he is hardly a novice; since 1995 Alpert has made 10 nature and environmental documentaries, the latest of which, “Land of Genesis,” is in the festival. The nature documentary is another genre one doesn’t usually associate with Israeli film, and Alpert’s approach in his new film is also quite different from what an American or European filmmaker would probably do with the same material. Made in conjunction with the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority, “Land of Genesis” is basically a gorgeous-looking travelogue focusing on three groups of mammals: the jungle cats of the Sea of Galilee, a herd of ibex living in a mountainous stretch of desert and a small pack of wolves in the Golan Heights.
The film is a real oddity, a seeming throwback to the bad old days of the Disney nature film, inadvertently evoking something like “The Living Desert” with its orotund narration, anthropomorphized animal life, wall-to-wall musical score and lush cinematography. There are many stunningly beautiful images and several funny moments, and the picture of animal life is less saccharine than in those Disney offerings, with bad things happening to some of the film’s protagonists. But the end result is anodyne at best, raising few questions and answering even fewer.
Roi Werner is another first-time director, working in a genre that is probably more commonly found on Israeli television than on the big screen: comedy-drama set in the singles scene of Tel Aviv. His debut film, “2Night,” has a deceptively simple premise: a man (Yaron Brovinsky, who also co-wrote the film with Werner) and a woman (Keren Berger) meet in a bar and leave together for what should be a casual sexual encounter, but when they get to her apartment building, they cannot find a parking space. Needless to say, every Jewish Week reader who has ever tried to park on the Upper West Side will recognize this dilemma instantly.
For the first 15 minutes or so of “2Night” audiences may feel like one-half of a pickup that has gone hideously wrong. He seems charmless; she is shrill. But the film rewards patience. It’s like that familiar moment in most such encounters — and the couple even discusses the experience — when the “first impression” masks drop and real humans emerge. The result is not entirely satisfying, but in the film’s final hour, as the duo quiet down and settle into something like a comfort zone, Werner manages to create some real feeling and the characters (and Brovinsky and Berger) begin to grow on you. “2Night” is a bit too glib for its own good, but Werner has real promise.
Dan Wolman is anything but a newcomer. He has been making films since 1970 and has 15 features to his credit. His latest film, “Gei Oni,” adapted from the novel by Shulamit Lapid, shares with several of his earlier works a primary focus on a woman struggling to gain acceptance in a new environment. “Gei Oni,” which is the name of the village in which most of the film takes place, is set during the First Aliyah, with Fania (newcomer Tamar Alkan) arriving from Russia with her emotionally disturbed brother and her baby daughter, the victims of a pogrom looking for a safe haven in Palestine. She ends up in a marriage of convenience with Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi, also making his debut), a widower with two children who lives in a small Jewish community in the north, near Safed.
“Gei Oni” is a strangely awkward film. It feels like someone took a much longer work and cut it down for theatrical release. Characters come and go mysteriously. Fania’s uncle, who accompanied her from Russia, disappears 15 minutes into the film and is never mentioned again. Her brother moves north with her and Yechiel but is absent from the narrative for long stretches. Few of the characters have back-stories, although one feels as if we are supposed to know more than the film tells, and Fania’s traumatic past will play a pivotal but all-too-predictable role in her life with Yechiel. Combined with the flatness of much of Wolman’s dialogue, “Gei Oni” is finally a disappointing effort.
The Israel Film Festival runs through May 19. Most screenings take place at Loews 84th Street. (Broadway and 84th Street); for more information, go to www.israelfilmfestival.com.