Note: This is the second of three articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
In the first of three articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, now underway at Lincoln Center, the continuing growth of the event was attributed in part to the splendid creative effulgence of the Israeli film industry during the nearly quarter-century of the festival’s existence. This year’s festival, the 24th annual, is an excellent example, with the final film in a splendid trilogy and a debut feature of consummate art and feeling contributed by Israeli filmmakers.
Ronit Elkabetz is one of the most gifted Israeli actresses and the closest thing to Anna Magnani in the world today. With her brother Shlomi she has been working for a decade on a three-film series tracing the marriage and divorce of Viviane Amsalem, a character originally based loosely on the filmmakers’ mother, a Jew of Moroccan heritage who marries a fellow Moroccan, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), endures a rocky relationship with her husband and both their families and finally, unable to withstand any more marital tensions, seeks a divorce.
The Elkabetz siblings co-wrote and -directed “To Take a Wife” (2004), “7 Days” (2008) and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the trilogy’s final installment, nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film and part of this year’s NYJFF before it opens theatrically in February. The three films represent a rising curve of accomplishment and ambition, with the first two gaining in self-assurance and an increasingly canny blend of comedy and drama. But seeing those two earlier films could not prepare a viewer for the quantum leap represented by “Gett.” Quite simply, it is a brilliant film, a rare mixture of laughter, rage and helplessness, such as any woman would face in the religious courts of Israel.
Like a well-constructed comedy routine, “Gett” (a variation on the spelling of a Jewish divorce) is a slow-burn device that builds from restrained absurdities like the judges asking Viviane’s attorney (Menashe Noy) to put on a kipa, to extended perorations from opposing counsel (Sasson Gabbai) so over the top that Perry Mason would blush. Viviane’s ordeal will go on for five years, although the film is so elegantly paced that its 115-minute running time passes swiftly. The Elkabetzes structure the film around long takes in close two- and three-shots, moving into close-ups frequently. Where “7 Days” used a similar reliance on long takes but with the camera set back a bit more to create a sense of the imploding community, “Gett” is about the increasing emotional isolation of its two lead characters and their supporters. It is also about the gradual flow of emotional states over the uninterrupted screen time. In the hands of a trusting director there is nothing more eloquent than the human face, and “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is a vivid reminder of that principle.
It is highly unusual for a young filmmaker to have two feature films in a single festival — one fiction, one non-fiction — but on the basis of “The Dune,” Yossi Aviram is an unusual director. “The Dune” opens with a 13-minute long pre-credit sequence set in Israel, establishing Hanoch (Lior Ashkenazi) as a slumping bicycle repair specialist whose relationship with his girlfriend unravels when he asks her to get an abortion. Suddenly we are in France, where Reuven Avari (Niels Arestrup) is drawing to the end of his career as a police detective specializing in missing-persons cases. His most recent case has ended badly, and his lover (Guy Marchand) is eager for him to retire. Then Hanoch is found on a sand dune on a French beach, without identification and unwilling to speak; the case intrigues Reuven and he begins to investigate.
Aviram, a cinematographer whose previous work has been on documentaries, brings a strong visual sense to this story, using the relationship between character and environment cunningly to peel back the layers of emotional deception. As a writer he is no less deft, artfully planting evidence for the audience, gently suggesting possible solutions to the film’s riddles and setting up at least one significant narrative point that turns out to be a red herring. The film is visually graceful, emotionally sensitive and effective and beautifully acted, in short a sterling debut.
If I say that Aviram’s other film in this year’s festival, a documentary called “The Polgar Variant,” is merely intelligent and workmanlike, you will get some idea of how impressive “The Dune” is. Intriguingly, what links the two films is a fascination with chess. Although the chess connection between the characters in “The Dune” turns out to be of secondary importance, Aviram invests it with much resonance and, looking at “Polgar” one can easily see why. The non-fiction film recounts the unusual story of the three Polgar sisters, Zsuzsa, Sofi and Judit, the daughters of two Jewish-Hungarian schoolteachers, who were the extraordinarily successful result of their father’s experiment in home schooling during the dark days of the post-1956 Communist regime in Hungary. Each of the three sisters hurled herself against the massive edifice of world chess, utterly dominated by men for its entire history. Each was a commanding figure in the women’s game, but only Judit was fortunate enough to win a men’s tournament at the highest level, although Zsuzsa came close. Aviram was fortunate that almost all of the participants in the story are alive and many of the major players — including all of the Polgars — were willing to talk on-camera about their lives. The film is brisk and frequently quite funny. It’s not “The Dune,” but it is intelligent and entertaining.
With the future of Israeli film seeming exceptionally bright, we turn to one of the mainstays of the industry, Amos Gitai; he is represented in this year’s festival by one of his rare literary adaptations, from the work Aharon Appelfeld, the acclaimed Israeli novelist and a survivor of the Shoah. Rereading Appelfeld’s 1983 novel “Tzili: The Story of a Life,” it’s not hard to see why he hasn’t attracted much interest from filmmakers. The prose of this dark picaresque novel, indeed of most of his work, has a brute simplicity and the hypnotic rhythm of someone chiseling the writer’s words onto hard stone, at a great cost to the artisan. If a reader imagines the scenes Appelfeld describes, it is probably as a snarling medieval woodcut. Film images would only aestheticize what should be primitive, haunting and ominous.
Amos Gitai would seem an unlikely candidate to film “Tzili” as the film is now titled. He is capable of moments of great, daunting violence, tinged with a sense of the absurd. His penchant for long takes with dizzying camera movement would seem a paradoxically apt choice for a novel in which the central character is constantly in motion yet never seems to get anywhere.
Gitai is a cerebral filmmaker, even cold, and the detachment with which he approaches his characters should serve as a guarantee against the Disneyfication of the Shoah, which Appelfeld has always rebuffed with his own brand of adamantine disengagement. Gitai defuses the most emotionally fraught material from the book by rendering it as voice-over narration in a late scene in a makeshift field hospital, almost without context, or by using it as dialogue spoken in extreme long-shot by a character we barely know. The only concession to comventional psychology and emotion is a long-take close-up of Tzili (played as a young adult by Sarah Adler), with tears welling up and rolling down her cheeks.
Sequence by sequence, “Tzili” is thoughtfully and intelligently directed. Taken as a whole, the film is a cryptic, ahistorical conundrum with none of the impact of Appelfeld’s novel and little of the resonance. Stripping away the connecting tissue of the book, removing characters’ motivations and eliding important plot elements, Gitai and co-scriptwriter Mari-José Sanselme have universalized a highly specific tale to no purpose. The result, sadly, is like Beckett without humor or Appelfeld without the underpinning reality of the Nazi rampage.
The 24th New York Jewish Film Festival, produced by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through Jan. 29. Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, both located on West 65th Street in Lincoln Center. For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com.