In a roundtable interview with our critic-journalist delegation, sophomore director Meny Yaesh (God’s Neighbors) spoke of his desire to step up the Israeli film industry’s genre game; echoing similar sentiments expressed by Guy Raz, Yaesh lamented Israel’s lack of film heritage in action films, horror, and science fiction. (Broadly speaking, Israeli movie houses get their Fast & Furious kicks from abroad, while homegrown film production defaults to prestige drama.) His second feature, Our Father, seemed to burn with the ambition to make up for all that lost opportunity in one go.
Combining the existential/religious preoccupations of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, right down to a perplexing visit with a nonagenarian rabbi, with the sort of bare-knuckle action you’re more likely to find at home with Scott Adkins-starring DTV bruisers like Undisputed 3 and Ninja 2, Our Father follows the kind-hearted, but seemingly indestructible, bouncer Ovadia (Moris Cohen, delivering a towering lead performance) as he strikes a deal with some bad guys in order to make some fast money, hoping that, in doing so, he can nip in the bud whatever’s standing in the way of him and his wife conceiving their first child. No one familiar with Michael Mann’s seminal Thief will be caught off guard by what happens when Ovadia thinks he can hand in his papers, but Our Father makes for a well-loaded 105 minutes, both for Yaesh’s technical aplomb and his ability to translate the values of what might have been a niche concern (reformed Jewish men trying to start a family in Israel) into the kind of gripping, genre-fueled drama anyone in the world can relate to.
Our Father’s centerpiece is a tracking shot following Ovadia on his first job as collection muscle: Whereas most of the last two decades’ worth of lauded single-shot sequences expend their resources drawing our attention to the technical feat of executing a long series of sophisticated camera moves across a meticulous production landscape, Yaesh divests the unbroken, five-minute take of prettiness and virtuosity, instead training his focus to the full spectrum of Ovadia’s emotional range, as he gets over his “new guy” cold feet, to the smug satisfaction at what he thinks is a job well done, to the dawning horror that comes when he realizes he’s going to have to put the hurt on someone who isn’t exactly coming at him in the nightclub with a broken beer bottle. At times a little too overwhelming in its knack for commercial gloss, Our Father gets a lot of mileage out of contrasts, such as the moment Ovadia first holds his friend’s newborn, our memory of him busting heads in syncopated rhythm still fresh in our minds.
Following the Oregon Trail western Meek’s Cutoff and the environmental activist thriller Night Moves, writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a return to earlier form, the ballad of contemporary rural emptiness, American-style, best exemplified by the filmmaker’s Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams. Anyone who’s been following Reichardt’s work from her breakout success with Old Joy, however, will testify to her consistent aesthetic: that of the patient, ever-observant eye and the fondness for the kinds of quiet moments that conventional direction usually chooses to erase.
Certain Women will disappoint no Reichardt auteurist, but the trio of Midwestern tales, each pivoting on losses that can’t be articulated or missed moments that can’t be named, cast a spell not unlike a set of Raymond Carver tales that have been divested of strained significance. Few steps are planted falsely (Jared Harris is ever so slightly miscast as an aw-shucks plaintiff in a work injury lawsuit, but the force of his bitterness is persuasive on an atomic level), while the film’s enduring images consist of indestructible women pushed just to the near side of too far. If you’re like me and you can’t quite grasp how or why legions of fans (and cinephiles) are bewitched by Kristen Stewart, the street-lit horseback ride that serves as the film’s centerpiece will at the very least argue the most compelling case, as Jamie (Lily Gladstone) serves as the sole agent of a nation of affections, against the longest of odds.
Effectively the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s film scene, Danis Tanovic, whose debut feature No Man’s Land won the foreign language Oscar 15 years ago, has remained the country’s foremost teller of hard truths in forms that could be described as parable-like: too ripped-from-the-headlines to be viewed from a safe, glass-encased distance, but told using clever, O. Henry-style twists and reversals. Death in Sarajevo takes that schema and applies it to the classic Grand Hotel template, a posh downtown Sarajevo hotel that bears witness, in a dozen ways, to the 100-year-old legacy of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by anarchist Gavrilo Princip. The classic line from Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film, “nothing ever happens,” reappears as a kind of conceptual joke, as Death in Sarajevo’s figurehead of the European Union, French actor Jacques Weber (as himself), spends the bulk of the story sequestered in his hotel room, preparing for a performance piece that’s meant to highlight Europe’s cluelessness and insularity.
The sole North American guest of the Jerusalem Press Club (administered by the Jerusalem Foundation, which also runs the festival), I attended screenings and events with critics and journalists from around the globe, from Central America and Argentina to Italy, Sweden, and China. The Foundation also hosted a pair of bucket-list-grade non-cinematic field trips: one to Jerusalem’s Old City, home to the bulk of the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the other to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The latter featured not a primary, but a substantive connection to motion pictures, in that the memorial is host to the USC Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994. The Shoah Foundation contains a library of Holocaust-related fiction and nonfiction films, viewable online, as well as a collection recorded testimony by tens of thousands of survivors. A revelation contained within Yad Vashem is the sheer volume of photographic and cinematic evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves, who thought that, with their cameras, they were building an audio-visual foundation for the thousand-year Reich that was to come.
In many a festival’s nonfiction section, a handful of passion projects of meager resources and even more meager visual style will slip through. One such toenail clipping of a documentary is Michal Aviad’s Dimona Twist, an agonizing 70 minutes of talking heads mixed with archival, public-domain footage of questionable veracity. The subject is a half dozen Jewish women who grew up in the desert town of Dimona, Israel, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the filmmaking pedigree is somewhere in the league of iMovie projects you somehow get swindled into watching on your friend’s computer. Best appreciated by moviegoers for whom an old woman saying something sassy is the height of comedy.
The triumph of the festival, to my mind, was Ori Sivan’s Harmonia, a multigenerational, culture-hopping orchestra melodrama of paradoxically modest tone, preferring to fill the broad outlines of a story from Genesis (in which Abraham has a child by a woman other than his wife) with meticulous, eye-filling compositions, and to tell a potentially cumbersome tale mostly through looks, pregnant pauses, and a confident trust in an audience’s ability to put two and two together. Sivan, like Nir Bergman, is another heir to the In Treatment franchise, and while his visual sense often approaches the jewel-box precision of a Kubrick or Wes Anderson, Harmonia feels as grounded in the heat and dust of its backstage milieu as an Altman film, and is as infatuated with classical music as Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall. The ending might be a little tidy, signaling its final resolution some 10 minutes out, but I’ll confess I had a little something in my eye when the show-stopping final number went down, and I couldn’t get to it because my hands were too busy clapping in time to the music. This must be what it’s like to like Slumdog Millionaire.
The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 7—17.