Mar 9, 2006

Or: Not a date movie

Or (my treasure), an amazing film from Israel, is one of the most brutal, depressing, heartbreaking films I've seen. Or belongs to the kind of bleak films like Lilya 4-ever, or Morvern Callar, that document sordidness and squalor in the lives of women. These films never hail from the United States, by the way. Call it box office poison. In any case, of the ones I've seen, including the overrated Turkish-German film, Head-On, Or is the most intelligent. It is a truly hard, unsentimental film about a teenager, Or (which means "light" in Hebrew), whose mother is an incurable prostitute. They live in a shabby apartment and they have no money. Or's mother is a bottom of the barrel prostitute. She behaves like a spoiled, irresponsible child, as if she's entitled to all the indulgence in the world because of her suffering. Her daughter goes to school and then works her ass off. She washes dishes in a restaurant, collects empty plastic bottles for recycling and mops the stairway of the apartment building where they live. She brings food home, she buys her mother's medicine, she locks her mother in to prevent her from going back to the streets. But the mother has succumbed so deeply to her victim's mentality, she is virtually incapable of taking care of herself. She chooses to be oblivious to the sacrifices her daughter makes for her and to the very fact that their roles are inverted. This is not a proud whore, this is not the absurd fantasy that the world entertains that whores are a happy lifestyle choice. This is a broken woman, broken beyond repair. She is a bundle of needs, a monster of unconscious selfishness, and quite stubborn in her helplessness. Or finds her a job cleaning a house and she looks down on it, can't hold on to it. But Or is devoted to her and is obssessed with saving her. Then as the film unfolds slowly, painfully, too intimately, it dawns on Or that there is no hope for her either. No matter how hard she tries to change things, her mother has given her a stigma she cannot escape. This is a harsh, quietly devastating film. It doesn't preach, there are no morally exalted speeches or terrible villains and heavenly saints. Not much happens except the daily grind of survival. The neighbors help until they stop helping. Some of them help by taking advantage of the situation, others by halfheartedly lending a hand, then taking it cruelly away. It seems that if you are a whore, everybody can feel superior and look down on you even as they help you. Or learns that no matter what she does or how she feels or who she is, she is an outcast, tainted, and cannot escape the abyss of degradation.
The bluntness of this movie made my stomach churn. At the end, I felt like taking a shower and having two alka-seltzers. No barrel of laughs here. But it is a great example of the kind of stories a film can tell, not with the intention of sermonizing, just of showing what a cruel, unfair place the world can be.

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