"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Shelter by award-winning director Eran Riklis

Shelter (מסתור) is a thriller by Eran Riklis, one of Israel’s greatest filmmakers, known for his many prize-winning films including Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree, Cup Final, The Human Resources Manager, and Dancing Arabs. 

As in The Lemon Tree, here, in Shelter, he tackles the subject of relationships between women across the divide, showing the compassion and humanity of the “other.”  But the films are so different!

In this film, Nomi is sent on a mission by the Mossad to babysit Mona, a Lebanese informer, hidden in Germany, having just undergone extensive plastic surgery in preparation for her promised new life in Canada.  It seems like a simple mission, but nothing is simple when the Mossad is involved.
An adaption of Shulamit Hareven’s story The Link, the film combines two genres. One is a psychological study of two women and how the relationship between them intensifies as they are confined to an apartment in Hamburg. Their personal stories are told through flashbacks as they confide in each other.  Nomi has spent the last two years stricken with grief as she has been mourning her husband who was killed by a bullet meant for her. Now, she wants to have the baby that she never had when her husband was alive.  Mona, previously the lover of the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is feeling cooped up, fearful for her own personal well-being and her future, and crazy with worry about her 8-year-old son who is hidden in a monastery in Lebanon. Both women are struggling with issues of identity, hiding who they are, trying on wigs, wondering who and where they will be when all of this is over.

The film is also a thriller about international espionage and intrigue.  Tension mounts as Nomi realizes that she is being watched, as the Hezbollah are searching for Mona who has betrayed them, and as the Germans and the Americans are hoping to use Mona as a pawn in their game of buying favors with Iran against Hezbollah.

I enjoy thrillers, but I don’t usually find them so compelling! This film is a particularly captivating and powerful story about two women, their fears and their worries, wonderfully performed and well-crafted, filled with tension and twists and turns.  It seems that betrayal is the name of the game.  And loyalty brings redemption.

Shelter is available from Menemsha Films.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

New Holocaust Film

Three new Israeli feature films opened this week in Jerusalem.  I chose first to go see The Testament (העדות), directed by Amichai Greenberg, because the story sounded compelling.  A Holocaust story, it is about a modern-day investigation of an Austrian cover-up of a massacre of Jewish laborers, near the end of the war.  The film is shot both in Jerusalem and in Austria, which provides an authentic and realistic feeling to the historical story. 

Joel, the chief investigator, is an ultra-orthodox Holocaust scholar who becomes obsessed with the investigation.  During the course of his work, while he is interviewing witnesses, he stumbles upon a woman who coincidentally knew his parents, back in the Ghetto.  She gives him an old photo which leads him to dig deeper into his family’s past and to uncover a shocking discovery. This is a complex story and the news, which is tragic and shameful for him, causes him to question his own identity. 

I was disappointed in the portrayal of the main character, the Holocaust scholar, who is so obsessed with his work, that he becomes a one-dimensional character.  He is without charm, doesn’t show any warmth to his colleagues or his family members, and cannot wrap his head around the shocking news which brings him to cruelly confront his own aging mother.

The Testament portrays a fascinating slice of history, but it is a disappointing film.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Children's Literature

One Last Bedtime Story, a television documentary series by Anat Zeltser and Modi Bar-On, is a new and fascinating TV series about children’s literature.  I have only had a chance to preview the first episode, but if it is a sign of what is to come, we are in for a most compelling series. 

The first episode, which offers a discussion of issues of language, opens with a wonderful reading by well-known Israeli authors of Natan Alterman’s children’s poem, “The Overcoat.”  In a discussion of the early writers of children’s literature, we encounter iconic writers such as Alterman, Haim N. Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Avraham Shlonsky, Meir Shalev, and others.  We learn about the butterfly, which is a “living flower” according to Bialik.  Did you know that the “see saw” rhyme that we sing when our children are swinging and playing was written by Bialik? 

We are shown illustrations by the early gifted illustrator who worked with Bialik, Tom Seidann-Freud, a female pioneer in the field. In addition to illustrators, we meet singers and authors such as Meir Shalev, Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret, David Grossman, and more, all discussing early writers of Hebrew-language children’s literature. We learn about Levin Kipnis who created so many children’s folk songs, and Leah Goldberg who wrote children’s poems for “Davar for Children” which was a publication of the “Davar” newspaper. 

What happened to the unique ways that modern Hebrew was once spoken?  The unique accents have given way to a melting pot of modern-day spoken Hebrew.  Yehudit Ravitz doesn’t see any conflict in the fact that she loves to hear the songs of Umm Kulthum (a great Egyptian female singer of Eastern music) and also read Agnon.  All of these elements have come together to form who we are.
There are fascinating issues discussed – the need for the “invention” of children’s literature in Hebrew where it never existed before; how to deal with the parents’ generation of immigrants who had to be taught the language; the changing pronunciation over the decades; whether to write on the level of the children, or trusting them to understand, without being patronizing or, on the other hand, too sophisticated.

One Last Bedtime Story, produced for YES TV, is available from Maya Weinberg mayafilmfest@gmail.com. Currently, only the first episode (65 minutes) is available with English subtitles – which, by the way, were amazingly poetic.  Check out the upcoming screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque this month!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Films of 2017

Here is my list of "best films". 
Since all of these films have been reviewed on this blog, you can check out the hot links for in-depth reviews!
Happy New Year!

Best Films of 2017

          Everything is Broken Up and Dances, starring and directed by Nony Geffen - a difficult film about a young man suffering from PTSD, about living with war and getting on with life.

In Between (Bar Bahar) -- Maysaloun Hamoud -- a compelling story about three Palestinian Israeli women, who are caught between their traditional society and the allure of the independent and open lifestyle of Tel Aviv.

An Israeli Love StoryDan Wolman - a tragic, yet overwhelmingly compelling story, set during the tumultuous period of the end of the British Mandate. 

The Cakemaker Ofir Raul Graizer -  a surprisingly tender romantic story about a German man who runs a coffee shop in Berlin. 

Foxtrot  - Samuel Maoz --  a brilliant and provocative prize-winning film which offers a shocking and effective cinematic criticism of the military establishment.

LongingSavi Gabizon – a touching story of family and bereavement.  

Maktub Oded Raz – a sentimental story about good deeds and helping make people’s wishes come true, starring two wonderfully ethnic characters!

Norman, The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer -- Joseph Cedar - starring Lior Ashkenazi and Richard Gere - a hard-hitting look at the relationship between American Jewry and the political leadership of Israel. 

Scaffolding - Matan Yair –  a story about Israeli high school kids who have been categorized as illiterate and also about a teacher who succeeds in making a difference in the lives of these kids.

       And the TV series –

Fauda -- Assaf Bernstein – an action series about an elite unit doing undercover work in the West Bank.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Disappointing Film

There are lots of good Israeli films playing in the movie theaters in Jerusalem right now.  I highly recommend Foxtrot, Scaffolding, Longing and Maktub – all of which have been reviewed previously on this blog. 

There is one more playing right now – The Burglar (הפורצת) by Hagar Ben-Asher -- about a teenage girl, living in Arad, who discovers that her mother has suddenly left her. The girl begins to break into apartments to obtain money in order to pay the rent and to buy a motor scooter.  Things become weird when she uses the money to pay for a hotel room by the Dead Sea in order to attract a visiting German geologist.  It is too bad that the film suffers from a lack of depth and little character development, and therefore I would not put this on my list of recommended films.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sentimental Comedy

From the trailer, you might think that Maktub, directed by Oded Raz, is a low-brow comedy about crime and violence.  But surprisingly, it is a sentimental story about good deeds and helping make people’s wishes come true!

Our two main characters are thugs who make a living collecting protection money from Jerusalem restaurants.  After surviving a life-transforming event, they decide to change their lives and do good deeds, helping grant people their wishes.  They set out to read the notes that people put into the Kotel (Western Wall), and then to figure out how to help them.  They put on a fancy bar mitzvah party for a single Russian Mom who can’t otherwise afford it.  They help a fellow put sparks back into his marriage.  And they help a woman who is having trouble getting pregnant. 

The film draws attention to so many issues in our contemporary world, including immigrants, cross-dressers, underworld criminals, chef restaurants, parental responsibility and lingering superstition. 

Our two main characters are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they are loyal friends, sentimental, and good-hearted.  As Sephardi stereotypes, they sprinkle their vocabulary with a lot of Arabic slang.  The title of the film, “maktub”, means "fate".  We can interpret it to mean that it was fate or destiny that the people who put prayers into the Kotel would be helped by these two guys!!

Maktub is entertaining, and the violence is over-the-top, making it mostly not realistic (which is certainly preferable!). I certainly enjoyed this film!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sitcom about Ethiopian Jews

Nebsu is a TV sitcom series which will soon begin its second season in Israel.  The series was aired on Reshet and produced with monies from the collaborative effort of the Gesher Film Fund and the Avi Chai Foundation—two organizations committed to promoting pluralism and tolerance within Israeli society. 

Nebsu is a low-brow series, filled with lots of bathroom and mother-in-law jokes, playing to a low common denominator of the Israeli public.  Having said that, I must also add that it’s well-paced, filled with sharp criticism of social customs in Israeli society, and it made me laugh at many of the foibles of our culture.

The story line centers around the son of immigrants from Ethiopia and the daughter of an Ashkenazi family who fall in love and want to marry each other.  The characters are compelling and the humor is quite witty, although not terribly sophisticated.  More important than anything else, the program has brought a typical and wonderful Ethiopian family into the living room of hundreds of thousands of Israeli homes.   This is a crucial step in bringing mainstream Ethiopian Jews into the Israeli consciousness and helping to promote racial tolerance within Israeli society. 

In addition, the big news is that I read in today’s Haaretz newspaper that American Fox TV is going to create a pilot for a comedy series based on the same idea of an inter-racial young couple.