Feb 7, 2010

Two Israeli Movies

Ajami, now showing at Film Forum, is one of the Best Foreign Picture Oscar nominees this year. The nomination seems symbolically or politically motivated, since the movie is directed by an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew.
Reminiscent of the grittiness of Gomorra, it's a story about the underworld in Ajami, an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, which is a beautiful old city next to Tel Aviv. It has more to do with gangsters and turf wars than with politics, but even the farthest corner of the underworld (gangster bedouins!) is affected by the realities of living in a concentrated space suffused with conflict and distrust between two peoples (and their endless subdivisions), i.e. Israel.
By the end, I felt that the film was as exhausting as the country. Yet my only big beef with the movie, which has a compelling story and very well achieved realism and which is important to see for various reasons, is that the filmmakers went the Babel route and instead of telling the tale in a straightforward, chronological narrative, they jump around in time and they, as they say in Hebrew, mebalbelim lanu et ha moach (they mess around with our brain). This creates unnecessary confusion in the audience. Sometimes, by going back to an event, they clarify things giving them ironic depth, but some of the key pieces of information either remain unclear, or seem weak links on the very formidable chain of deep relationships that is the core of the film. Here everyone is truly interconnected, not by halfbaked coincidence like in Babel, but by human relationships that are too entangled personally, geographically and politically. It's like a Gordian knot of humanity.
The main chain of events goes something like this (spoiler alert):
An Israeli Arab young man sells his car to his neighbor. The neighbor is then killed by mistake by a gang who thought it was revenging itself on someone who would not pay protection money. Now the car seller needs to pay that money in order to spare himself and his family. He cannot possibly come up with the money, so he decides to start selling drugs. He also asks help of the Christian Arab who is like the de facto mayor of the neighborhood. He kind of helps (if help is bargaining down the price of the payoffs), but he realizes his daughter is in love with this poor schmo, who happens to be a Muslim. The father then does whatever he needs to do to thwart their union. This ends up involving the not particularly pure Israeli police (and this is a point in the movie that isn't clear to me whether they are clean or corrupt). There are other characters that intersect in this thread, and they are all hurtling towards tragedy.
There are many scenes in Ajami of physical brawls, people entangled in the ground, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews pulling this way and that way, without weapons; an apt metaphor for the deep, intractable interconnection of the country itself. The Israeli Arabs speak Arabic peppered with Hebrew phrases here and there. The Israelis do the opposite. There are Arab characters who could be Jews and Jewish characters who could be Arabs. A lot of people will be surprised not to find a terrorist in sight, nor a politician, nor a liberal or a conservative or a religious anything in this movie. And this is what makes Ajami a singular and important film. It shows what is never shown in the news. A society that malfunctions despite and because of the bigger political problems it suffers. Basically a dysfunctional network of families. Israeli writer David Grossman has said that he wishes Israel were a normal country with the problems of a normal country (crime, drugs, etc). Unfortunately, his wish has come true (there is now a healthy mafia, and more social inequality than ever) on top of having to deal with the elephant in the room. And in Ajami, the movie and the neighborhood, the elephant is always there. It is there with the Arabs who cross into Israel from the territories to get illegal jobs, it is there with the distrust that the Israeli Arabs have of what they call "the government", and with the sense of injury and threat the Jews feel towards the hostility from the occupied territories. The acts of no one in this film are politically motivated. They are all acts of personal survival and personal revenge in some way or another, but they are informed by mistrust and resentment and the consequences are tragic for everybody.

Eyes Wide Open is a quiet, devastating, very interesting film about two orthodox Jews who happen to be gay. Set in Jerusalem in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, the story is about a butcher who finds love in the arms of a gay yeshiva student drifter (quite hot). This is a story of forbidden love, and the more forbidden the love, the sexier, but it is also the story of people who cannot help their nature and of the society that shuns them. If being gay in regular society is hard, being gay in an ultra-orthodox religious community is hell. But the difference is only one of degree. The rejection and the disrespect and the fear and the intolerance are basically the same, except that in a religious community there are (interestingly enough, like in Iran) gangs of moral enforcers that threaten anybody who doesn't toe the line with the prospect of true excommunication, shame and violence.  Eyes Wide Open's singularity is that it is very matter of fact about the discovery of homosexuality in its particular context. The tone of the movie is not prurient or romantic or mawkish (although there is a lot of sexual tension). It is clear eyed, like its title. The butcher is a serious student of Jewish law and his rebbe/teacher is a guy with smart, interesting ideas about God, for instance, that God does not really want people to be ascetic. The butcher however, is a bit militant in that he finds redemption in the challenge, he finds enjoyment in the difficulty of overcoming sin (probably because he knows his own nature). However, it turns out that the difficulty is not as much succor as the love of this man and he becomes as defiant as he can, I think because he has the intellectual and social standing in the community he thinks will protect him and because he knows that what he feels is pure. But the double life is awful; his marriage, to a saintly but not stupid woman, suffers. His business is threatened, gossip is rife, people say that the meat he sells is not kosher, everything can collapse because there is simply no way that this community will tolerate what they consider his deviancy. I was thinking that the two of them could save themselves endless hardship if they changed clothes, cut their beards off and moved to Tel Aviv, which is only half an hour away, but it is not inconceivable that at least for the butcher this is inconceivable. The movie opens up a glimpse into the stifling, fascistic tendencies of orthodoxy. There is a young guy, for instance, who is in love with a girl, that has already been promised to someone else in marriage. These two young lovers are having an affair and the rebbe and the butcher and the father of the girl come to read him the riot act. He mentions love, he would destroy the world for her, and this is even worse. How dare he say he loves her in front of her father, asks the butcher, who is basically threatening him with the same treatment that is coming to him. In the end, the butcher cannot get away from the ideas that inform his world.

These two movies are good examples of the blossoming of Israeli cinema into, for the first time ever, an artistic, cultural, creative force. I have seen excellent Israeli war movies (Lebanon, Beaufort) and other excellent movies like Or, which zero in on smaller, more personal quandaries with unflinching honesty and power. Ajami and Eyes Wide Open deal with molecular communities in a very small country with very big problems, but somehow these stories transcend the particularity of being an Israeli Arab or a gay Ultra-orthodox Israeli (what could be more minority than that?) into universality, without losing their unique and extreme sense of place. It makes for powerful cinema. It's the best thing that can happen to Israel culturally, both within and without its borders. I hope it continues to thrive.

No comments:

Post a Comment