Israeli artists are as introspective as any in the world. I doubt if any filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians or composers anywhere spend as much time pondering the nature of their national identity at both the micro and macro levels.
And, of course, as Amos Oz says in one of the films playing at this year’s Israel Film Festival, beginning May 5, “Everyone is ambivalent.”
That film, “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams,” directed by Yonathan and Masha Zur, is a workmanlike portrait of one of the nation’s foremost novelists and one its most eloquent voices for a nuanced, humane and thoughtful peace between Israelis and Palestinians. What the film makes obvious almost immediately is that Oz is also one of the wittiest men of letters anywhere, a genuinely funny man with an offhand manner that bespeaks a finely balanced self-assessment. Oz knows how good he is — he doesn’t need to impress anyone — but he has a core of modesty that is refreshing.
The same may be said of the Zurs’ film. Beginning with an extreme close-up of Oz’s pen as it scratches across a spiral notebook page (for those who are concerned, I believe it is a Pilot Razorpoint), the film’s attention is focused almost exclusively on Oz. Most of the footage was shot while he was touring with his memoir of his parents, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which works nicely for the Zurs because it means that Oz is either reading from that book or discussing his life much of the time. Inevitably, he is also called on to talk about the state of Middle East politics, which he does with his usual intelligence.
Occasionally, most particularly in a scene in which Oz is walking and chatting with the Palestinian professor and coexistence activist Sari Nusseibeh, the film feels a little stuffy and self-important, unlike its subject, but for the most part it is almost as entertaining as Oz himself.
In two of the other films from the first week of the festival, introspection takes the form of an examination of the Israeli past, drawing on the work of two other fine Israeli novelists, Yehoshua Kenaz and David Grossman. Kenaz’s 1986 novel, “Infiltration,” serves as the source for Dover Koshashvili’s new film of the same title, while Grossman’s 1991 novel “The Book of Intimate Grammar” is the basis for “Intimate Grammar,” the new film by “In Treatment” creator Nir Bergman.
Kosashvili is Israel’s stealth filmmaker. Although “Late Marriage,” his first feature, won considerable acclaim both at home and abroad, his subsequent work has flown under the radar. His second feature, “Gift from Above” has never been shown in the United States. His most recently released “Anton Chekhov’s The Duel,” got excellent reviews and a brief run at Film Forum then sank without a trace. One fears that history will repeat itself with “Infiltration,” a quirky film that mixes moods deftly, throwing viewers off-balance.
The subject of the film is a group of misfit recruits undergoing basic training for the IDF in 1956 (10 years before the director was born). The members of this unit have an abundance of physical ailments (epilepsy, a mild form of hemophilia), psychological problems, or are washouts and foul-ups from other units. As in his previous work, Kosashvili moves rapidly between low farce and potential tragedy, but the degree of detachment with which he views the material, eschewing close-ups, relying on lengthy takes in which the emotional currents of a scene are constantly in flux, combined with the large number of characters under his scrutiny, gives the film a certain chilly quality that actually works to its benefit. The basic-training movie is a staple subgenre, usually leading to or ending in combat, with the most unlikely characters redeeming themselves.
But Kosashvili and Kenaz break off their story at the end of basic, with a startling and appalling piece of violence that has nothing to do with valor or courage. Like most of the other critical moments of “Infiltration,” the ending is about class, ethnic divisions and the turmoil of Israeli self-definition.
“Intimate Grammar,” Nir Bergman’s second feature, is sort of a period reworking of his debut film “Broken Wings,” an up-close-and-poisonous look at an imploding nuclear family from the point of view of one of its youngest members. Set in the early 1960s, the film, like the novel upon which it is based, is mainly about Aharon (Roee Elsberg), the son of two Holocaust survivors whose marriage seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for them to torment one another and their two children. Aharon has his own problems; he’s the smallest kid on the block, the last one to hit puberty, he’s painfully introspective and in relationships his own worst enemy.
Bergman’s screenplay and direction offer a version of this story that is at once too novelette-ish and yet too elliptical. He never gets us inside Aharon’s head, despite some rather awkward inner monologues. There are striking moments and narrative elements that have some impact; the relationship between Aharon and Yaeli (Rony Tal), his first girlfriend, has moments of real tenderness and warmth, as does Aharon’s interplay with his sister Yochi (Yael Sgerski). And Bergman once again gets nicely modulated performances from his younger actors. But the film feels too unfinished to really work.
By contrast, “Zion and His Brother,” which had its world premiere a few months ago at the Sephardic Film Festival and is once again on display in the Israel Film Festival, is tighter and more focused in its exploration of yet another dysfunctional family. (Is there any other kind?) Ronit Elkabetz is top-billed, but her performance is a self-effacing one designed to throw light onto the two young actors, Reuven Badalov and Ofer Hayun, who play her sons. As in most of her other films, Elkabetz here is part of a neo-realist world, gritty and unhappy, with her sons chafing under her inconsistent parenting and simultaneously yearning for and rejecting any potential male role model. It’s a first feature for writer-director Eran Merav, and he elicits remarkably skilled and nuanced performances from the two young men and Lina Leyn, who plays a girl caught between the two brothers. The film is dark and brooding but effectively so.
The Israel Film Festival runs from May 5-19. Most of the screenings are at the Loews 84th St. (Broadway and 84th Street); for more information, go to www.israelfilmfestival.com.