It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar films from Israeli directors than the pair that are playing in the opening week of the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs through May 1. “Rabies” by Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, claims to be Israel’s first slasher film. Alma Har’el’s “Bombay Beach” is a documentary with some staged dance sequences, set in one of the most desolate communities in North America. Each could be read as a comment on the current condition of the Jewish state and its inhabitants or just enjoyed for its own virtues. Happily, in both cases, those virtues are considerable.
“Bombay Beach” is set in the eponymous town, situated at the edge of the Salton Sea, an inland body of water created by pure chance in California. The film begins with ‘50s newsreel and promotional footage in which local businesses tried to cash in on the unexpected event by touting the area as a resort. But nature has a way of taking back what is given by mistake and the ecology of the region struck back, leaving Bombay Beach and its neighbors a series of desolate, all but abandoned wrecks, inhabited by the losers of the Golden State’s sweepstakes.
Alma Har’el basically moved in with these folks for several months and the film that results is hypnotic, funny and frequently stirring, a paean to the indomitable spirit of Americans who just don’t know when to quit, even when perseverance is downright foolish. Red is an elderly ex-oil rig worker who now survives by reselling cigarettes he buys tax-free from the local Indian reservation. At first glance, the Parrish family looks like something out of an episode of “Justified”; Mike is a tattooed, shaven-headed ex-con, his wife a high-school dropout who also did time, the kids noisy and seemingly feckless, including Benny, the youngest who, at 7, is diagnosed as bipolar and is receiving dosages of drugs that would stun a horse. Finally, CeeJay Thompson is a personable young black man who fled the gang violence of Los Angeles in the hope of building a reputation in high school football and becoming the first member of his family to attend college.
It is an unpromising looking set of people, although CeeJay is immediately likeable and dedicated to his pursuit of a scholarship. But Har’el never condescends to them, never judges them and gives free range to their memories and dreams. Despite the initial appearances the protagonists emerge as decent people who have been beaten down by life only rise again from the debris that characterizes Bombay Beach itself. I’m not usually happy with documentaries that cushion their reality with staged material, but in “Bombay Beach,” it works, creating an otherworldly alternative to the almost surreal nature of the region’s desperate reality.
Does Har’el see the dream in the desert gone wrong as a metaphor for her own country? It would be hard not to see some parallels, with the Salton Sea now so saline that almost nothing can live in it, and all the promises of the 1950s defaulted. But if that’s the way she wants us to read the film, the final verdict must be a guarded optimism for both the real-life inhabitants of Bombay Beach, who have set their sights with admirable realism, and Har’el’s distant countrymen.
Papushado and Keshales might differ with that verdict. “Rabies,” which describes itself as a slasher film, is actually more like a demented feature-length live-action “Roadrunner” cartoon. Although the film is set in a forest and parkland, it has the same parched, hallucinatory feeling as Chuck Jones’ masterfully minimalist desert-scapes. And it has the same dark humor. Like Wile E. Coyote, the characters in “Rabies” keep moving forward long after common-sense (and trauma medicine) would dictate otherwise.
The film begins in total darkness, a state to which it will return a few more times quite tellingly. Tali (Liat Har Lev) has fallen into a mysterious trap while she and her brother Ofer (Henry David) are running away from home with a dark secret (which the filmmakers have made obvious). Ofer struggles to get his lighter working and we see that she is up to her waist in water, mysteriously immobilized. Ofer runs off to get help. In the meantime, four 20-somethings (Ran Danker, Ania Bukstein, Yael Grobglas and Ofer Schechter) have managed to get lost on their way to play tennis; the tension in the foursome is palpable and, frankly, sexual. Elsewhere two forest rangers (Efrat Baumwauld and Menashe Noy) are going about their daily rounds while a pair of seemingly inept cops (Lior Ashkenazi and Danny Geva) are slouching through theirs. Add to this a mysterious man in overalls (Yaron Motolla) and the many traps he has set and you have an unlikely recipe for a bloodbath.
“Rabies” is not really a slasher movie. It’s more like a cross between a diabolical Rube Goldberg device and one of Tinguely’s self-destructing kinetic sculptures. There is plenty of violence, with most of the cast eliminating one another in a deranged comedy of terrors. But the result feels more like a dark farce than a horror film, and the film’s last line of dialogue, delivered amidst the end credits, is a great capper, suggesting that the film’s message, if it has one, is that the notoriously short fuse of the average Israeli can’t possibly be a good thing. On the other hand, if it results in movies that are as flat-out entertaining as this one, violence and all, it’s not a total loss either.
The 10th annual Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 20-May 1 at locations throughout southern Manhattan. For information, go to www.TribecaFilm.com.