Devarim opens with the reading of a will, and the only thing more fitting than the first scene’s blunt emphasis on the issue of cultural heritage is the presence of Amos Gitai as the numb heir. The Israeli director has from the beginning taken upon himself the task of chronicling the lingering scars of a land “for years in a state of war,” with the brusque sutures of his aesthetic inescapably among the ensuing fallout; his aim as director is not so much to streamline the volatile political realities around him as to photograph the conflicting seams. Accordingly, Gitai’s own voice within the film as bereft mamma’s boy Goldman can offer no more answers than the other characters’, all members of Israel’s “lost generation”: lothario-photographer Cesar (Assi Dayan) grows more cynical as he enters middle-age, while Israel (Amos Schub) smothers his talent as a pianist with inertia. The early scenes, with Cesar and Israel complainingly searching through a graveyard for the funeral of Goldman’s father, strike an absurdist comic tone, though it is not long before the feeling of mortality extends to the rest of the disaffected ensemble, each character trapped in the muggy, disaffected atmosphere of modern-day Tel Aviv. Gitai’s unbroken takes, often symptomatic of his bold indifference to polished style, function here as a filmic counterpart for Ya’ackov Shabatai’s one-sentence-one-novel strategy in his cult novel Zihron Devarim, yet even crowded within the same frame without the relief of a cut, the urban dwellers are unable to forge connections. Cesar juggles mistress and ex-wife without understanding either, while Goldman, talking to his old, weary mother (whose “incessant buzz” in her ear she attributes to “the camps in Russia”), is in a plane of his own, convincing himself that “death is the real substance of life.” A forlorn mood piece weighted down by stiffly declaratory philosophizing, Devarim, the first installment in Gitai’s “City Trilogy,” suggests Tel Aviv as a contemporary black hole whose displacement is continuously draining a culture’s fragmented soul. People find may momentary solace in food and sex, yet the film’s gloom is so pervasive that, when someone says that “life’s a bitch, but it’s exhilarating,” you only believe the first half.
It is a strange thing when a transfer's technical shortcomings work to the film's advantage, yet the grain and wavering level of darkness provide an extra suffocating layer for Gitai's Tel Aviv. Even stranger is how the sound appears punchier during the slicing of a vegetable than when coming out of the characters' mouths.
Well, the music played over the main menu is pretty.
Despair comes too easy to Devarim, but it should be seen by anyone interested in Amos Gitai's still-underrepresented oeuvre.