No longer the prototypical Israeli film: Oshri Cohen as Liraz in taut, gritty "Beaufort," opening Friday. (Photo courtesy Kino International)

Cinema, Israeli Style

Michael Fox February 21, 2008

Israel turns 60 in May, and the anniversary will be celebrated in this country with acres of Op-Ed space devoted to sober analyses of how the Jewish state long ago lost its idealism. It’s true that the nation is no longer defined absolutely by Zionism, the secular nationalist movement that was endorsed worldwide (except by the Arab states) as details of the Holocaust emerged in the weeks and months after World War II. Likewise, Israel’s socialist values, embodied by a kibbutz system that enjoyed mythological status until the late ’70s, have given way to the greed, selfishness and corruption endemic to most capitalist societies, young or mature. But even as the country has become a typically affluent Western society, its cinema has retained its status as a crucial component of the national dialogue. Israeli films serve as both conscience and instigator, possibly because artists are able to exert influence in a country of just 7.3 million people. (Movies in this country are produced almost exclusively for entertainment and socialization, in case you hadn’t noticed.) But Israeli movies have been exposed to even bigger audiences in recent years, garnering praise, prizes and distribution deals on the international festival circuit. With the current and imminent release of “The Band’s Visit, “Beaufort” and “Jellyfish” in the U.S., on the heels of last year’s “Close to Home” and “The Bubble,” the wave has reached our shores.

Three factors, in combination, have been instrumental in achieving the current high-water mark in Israeli cinema. Government support, financial and otherwise, is available even to projects that are critical of Israel’s policies and direction. At the same time, producers have been able to access European financing, and bigger budgets translate into better actors (such as Israeli-born Natalie Portman’s presence in Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” a couple years ago) and better production values. Finally, Israel boasts a couple of outstanding film schools that give students a solid grounding in narrative techniques. Certainly, some have gone on to make slick mainstream fodder for television and cinemas akin to what a USC film grad would turn out. But most seem to identify either with the American breed of independent filmmakers or the European tradition of ambiguous character studies, and are committed to telling iconoclastic stories in their own styles.

To the uninitiated, the taut, gritty “Beaufort” (opening this Friday at the Lumiere and Shattuck, two days before it vies for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; also playing Feb. 28 in Cinequest and Mar. 1 in the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival) might appear to be the typical Israeli film: a war movie populated solely by men in combat fatigues that unfolds in a chilly, isolated fortress far removed from normal (read civilian) life. The military and political leaders are distant and indifferent, and people die for no good reason against a smoke-shrouded background of green, gray and black.

Military service is mandatory in Israel for everyone (except for the ultra-Orthodox, interestingly), and the fact is that countless movies were made from the ’60s to the ’80s by filmmakers questioning the power and morality of the country’s central institution. Since the first intifada, though, moviemakers have shifted their focus to the effects of the military occupation on Palestinians and on the psyche of Israelis. And in recent years, a new generation of filmmakers has chosen to ignore the military culture and the conflict altogether to explore universal conditions such as messed-up families, the neurosis-inflaming effects of daily urban life and the frustrations of love and sex among attractive 20-somethings.

So the understated and haunting “Beaufort,” adapted by Joseph Cedar (Best Director at Berlin 2007) from a cathartic best-selling novel, is no longer the prototypical Israeli film. Beaufort was both the site of Israel’s first victory in southern Lebanon in 1982 and the last outpost before it belatedly returning to its own side of the border 18 years later. The movie deals with the ghosts (past, present and future) that accompany an all-but-abandoned unit’s last months on the premises. Notwithstanding interviews in which Cedar portrayed “Beaufort” as a universal tale about the pointless human cost of land that will inevitably be deemed “no longer strategically necessary,” the movie is an unambiguous indictment of Israel’s leadership.

At first blush, Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” (now in theaters) looks like a new-millennium take on that old standby, the droll comedy in which Middle Eastern enemies discover they have the important things in life in common. Soccer comprised the common ground in Eran Riklis’ 1991 international hit “Cup Final;” in this case, it’s a love of Arabic music. Kolirin wisely submerges his political points in favor of a deeply humanistic character sketch, which is infinitely more attractive than a preach-to-the-converted polemic in favor of peace (or do you call it coexistence?). Moviegoers with a cursory knowledge of the Mid-East should also be aware that the dynamic between the Egyptians and Israelis is altogether different than that between the Palestinians and Israelis.

While “Beaufort” roughly approximates the pacing and look of American war films — at least those made by Terrence Malick — the deadpan tone and miniaturized subtlety of “The Band’s Visit” suggests European films (with the wide open spaces of American Westerns). If that ends up working to Israel’s benefit on Oscar Night, it will be one of the great ironies in Academy Award history: Israel originally submitted “The Band’s Visit,” which nabbed the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes last year, but it was rejected for containing too much English.

Although both Cedar and Kolirin have made films with an up-to-the-minute time stamp, their underlying subject matter — the ongoing tensions between Israel and its neighbors, and the need to move beyond them and step into the future — is familiar. For an evocative taste of a new perspective, mark your calendar for the late April opening of “Jellyfish,” the feature debut of fiction writers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen. The movie depicts the overlapping lives of several Tel Aviv women with a mix of comedy and pathos. You’ve already had a taste of Keret’s sensibility if you were one of the 50 people who caught “Wristcutters: A Love Story” during its brief run last fall, which director Goran Dukic adapted from Keret’s short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”

If you’re still not convinced that Israeli movies have more on their mind than endless war, check out “Broken Wings,” Nir Bergman’s 2002 Todd Solondz-esque saga of a family struggling to recover after the sudden death of the husband/father (in that most heroic and macho of ways, from a bee sting). And if you missed Eytan Fox’s big-theme, pop music-packed movies that pushed Israel onto the radar of festival programmers on every continent (OK, maybe not Antarctica), then add “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble” to your list.

Every national cinema, even France’s, has good years and bad years. Israel’s hot streak bears every indication of continuing, at least based on the reports out of the just-wrapped Berlin Film Festival. Eran Riklis (“Cup Final”) collected great reviews and the Audience Award in the Panorama section for “Lemon Tree,” an unexpectedly warm and optimistic tale of a Palestinian woman challenging Israeli functionaries who’ve threatened to level her lemon grove. Amos Kollek’s entry in the main competition, “Restless,” received the Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas. (Admittedly, we’re not sure what that signifies. Brilliant commercial prospects? Or for discerning audiences only?) On the documentary side, the FIPRESCI (critics’) Prize in the Forum section went to Natalie Assouline’s “Shahida-Brides of Allah,” a portrait of five Palestinian women imprisoned in Israel for their roles in suicide bombings.

The 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel will provoke a range of reactions, no doubt about it. In preparation for the bombast and propaganda from both sides, it might prove a good idea to spend some time with the work of artists such as Joseph Cedar, Eran Kolirin, Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret.