If the psychology, though not always the reality, of military occupation was chiefly hegemonic even before the Iraq War, our recent meddling has only further soured its depiction in trans-Atlantic culture. The thin line between oppressor and liberator is far more difficult to blur accurately, and above all there now hangs the nagging possibility that the politics of interracial (especially Middle Eastern) conflict are too nuanced in nature and too brutal in practice for the occidental mind to fathom, let alone exploit. This is part of what makes The Little Traitor, an adaptation of a patchy Amos Oz novel, such an intriguing choice for a film project from American director Lynn Roth; part coming-of-age yarn and part minority exploration, the narrative glances back through the solemn fog of multiple well-meaning
“peacekeeping” operations to the tail-end of the British Mandate on Palestine and the subsequent establishment of an autonomous Israel. But while the movie is entrenched in all the currently relevant complexities of international armed interventions (most notably the very good question of whether it’s even worth attempting to mediate between two or more warring factions who are determined to annihilate each other), Roth errs in the manner of most filmmakers attempting to tell another nation’s tragedy. Rather than approaching the bitter if honest ethnic portraiture of the source material as a sympathetic outsider, Roth essays a full-blown allegory of Jewish idealism, and condescendingly fails.
The film makes no effort to ameliorate the many contrivances of the novel’s plot. On the eve of the Brits’ withdrawal from Palestine, a precocious young Polish émigré (nicknamed “Proffi” by his parents due to a snottily professorial disposition) befriends Dunlop (Alfred Molina), an English soldier studying Hebrew to stave off ennui during his foreign tour. That the two are thrust into an unlikely relationship they unflinchingly accept is the story’s most forgivable bit of far-fetchedness. What we’re less willing to swallow is how Proffi (child actor Ido Port, sounding as though he’s clumsily reading a teleprompter) manages to piss away the afternoons in pool halls, exchanging bromides with Dunlop on the Bible, women, and the Jews’ uniform hatred of the curfew-enforcing British troops without provoking so much as a hairy eyeball from local lookers-on. Despite the garish types the two cavalierly inhabit (the plucky, brainiac subordinate and the gentle but dutiful superior), their partnership never feels the least bit verboten. And when Proffi’s community, which includes a fiery officer played by Theodore Bikel, eventually discovers the mismatched union, and they decry his acts as treasonous, we’re more confused than sympathetic.
It’s clear, of course, that Roth means to cleverly assess, and somberly revise, the Zionist movement with Proffy’s character, just as Oz did: If the boy’s rash attempts at asserting independence from distracted but softly supportive guardians weren’t “symbolic” enough, his nascent sexuality—flowering in a pair of dilated pupils peeping at an undressing neighbor—is a clumsily obvious representation of a displaced people developing a globally competitive (i.e. masculine) identity. In the finale, however, the allegory angrily turns in on itself. As the red beret-wearing British are shipped home and the United Nations approves the partitioning of a Jewish state, there’s Hava Nagila in the streets—even from Proffi’s father (Rami Heuberger), who looks like a Semitic cousin of Rick Moranis’s early morning video jock Gerry Todd—and our youth protagonist contentedly remarks how much better off the Jews will be without Anglo interference. We can almost hear Hezbollah hatefully congealing in the distance; it’s irony as merciless as it is useless. When addressing a religious battle that impassioned warriors have been fighting for centuries it’s a delicate task to lay blame, but Little Traitor recklessly damns everyone who’s ever been involved for the current state of the Gaza Strip.