In director Dror Zahavi’s For My Father, Tarek, a young Palestinian, contends with the very real possibility that he will die a violent death within two days. He knows when it will happen, right down to the exact hour. He’s a suicide bomber, assigned to walk into a crowded market in Tel Aviv and trigger the device strapped inside his clothes. When his trigger fails on him, Tarek (Shredi Jabarin) is given a stay of execution, so to speak, for 48 hours, awaiting a replacement trigger. But during this time, he forms an intimate, meaningful bond with a young Israeli woman, and as a result, begins to rethink the value of his own life.
The above is a harrowing premise for a movie to chew on, but one rich with the potential for deep character analysis and potent social observation. For My Father gets us halfway there, but it loses its footing on the story’s difficult emotional terrain, taking a safer—not to mention, baffling—detour into areas associated with achy-breaky teen romances and into dramatic alleyways that offer little but platitudes.
Growing up amid poverty and routinely witnessing the humiliation to which Israeli border authorities subject his own people, Tarek has harbored a simmering resentment all his life. It reaches a boiling point when news spreads of his father’s cooperation with Israeli intelligence—an act prompted entirely so that Tarek, a talented soccer player, could cross into Israeli territory without harassment to play for a star team. By volunteering for his suicide mission, Tarek means both to pay back his father and take personal vengeance.
But that’s when his mission runs into a snag, and he meets the lovely, independent Keren (Hili Yalon). Shunned by her traditionalist Jewish father for her secular lifestyle, Keren has left her family, and lives a hardscrabble life running a tiny convenience store when she isn’t fending off threats by orthodox Jewish men outraged by her short skirt. Tarek and Karen are both outcasts from their communities as is the old electronics repairman, Katz (Shlomo Vishinsky), whom Tarek befriends. Still haunted by the long-ago death of his son, Katz lives entirely in the past, as much a shell of a man as Tarek’s own father.
Much of the film is devoted to Tarek and Keren’s burgeoning romance. It’s impossible for a viewer not to keep Tarek’s impending reckoning with his own mortality constantly in mind while watching their scenes together, the progression from day to night, until we sit on the eve of his own warped martyrdom. Of course, Tarek doesn’t let slip a word of his plans to Keren, but we feel the weight of regret behind every word he utters as the weekend progresses. Theirs is a relationship on a timer, literally, and while it develops rapidly, what’s lacking is a sense of urgency and depth in their moments together. Zahavi and his screenwriters Ido Dror and Jonatan Dror distance themselves from the enormous existential void at the center of their material, either scared off or believing the best approach was to circle around and avoid it entirely. Hence, the quasi-lovers’ scenes feel emotionally elliptical—you can sense the filmmakers grasping for significance and coming up short—and, yes, about as adorable as anything in Pretty in Pink or Say Anything…, from their bicycling together through Tel Aviv to their ad hoc get-together on the beach.
For his part, Jabarin turns in a heartfelt, believably pensive performance, and he and Yalon make for appealing romantic leads. Beyond that, one wonders if Zahavi was sensitive to the awkward yet inherently comic nature of a setup in which a suicide bomber, bracing for death, is stumped by a bad trigger button. The strength of its central performance, however, together with its powerful subject matter carries For My Father firmly into the realm of the watchable, all the way to the film’s most poignant moment: Its final shots in which Zahavi, in an uncharacteristic stroke of poetry, conveys how only those willing to look past the smokescreen of bigotry and propaganda can know us for who we truly are. And were.