Avi Nesher’s new high-budget and powerful film, Image of Victory (aka Portrait of Victory) tells two parallel stories about a battle of the 1948 war, particularly how the Egyptians conquered Kibbutz Nitzanim.
The film opens in 1978 when peace is announced between Egypt and Israel. A successful Egyptian journalist remembers back 30 years to a battle during the 1948 war when, as a young man, he had been sent, with a cameraman, to shoot propaganda newsreels which would portray victorious moments that would help King Farouk with his popularity. He remembers back to a battle against Nitzanim. At that time, Nitzanim was a small kibbutz outpost (on the southern border with Egypt). The young kibbutz members and the army irregulars were poorly trained, naïve and idealistic. They were up against the fedayeen and then later, up against the better equipped Egyptian army.
The film is based on a true story of the defeat of Nitzanim. At that time, the kibbutz was outnumbered by the powerful Egyptian army, but members of the kibbutz were told to hold the line. Their eventual surrender, even after many were killed in the fighting, was seen as a shameful defeat, leaving a black mark on the history of the State of Israel, according to normative Israeli history. This film was meant to redress that terrible historical black mark. The film was billed in the media as an anti-war film but it seemed to me to be much more of a nationalist telling of the “real” story of what happened at Nitzanim. It makes some of the kibbutzniks and soldiers into heroes and heroines, despite their defeat.
I really liked the fact that two parallel stories are offered. One story is that of the journalist who is dedicated to making a serious film, using also a love story as a hook to bring in the Egyptian audience, but is forced to create army propaganda. The second is the story of the kibbutzniks, as personified in Mira, an extremely motivated and independent young woman, the radio operator for the kibbutz, willing to die in defending her community. These two stories are somehow connected since the journalist and his cameraman have their eyes on Mira, throughout the whole film, as if to put a human face to the enemy.
Overall, I feel that it was a good film but not a great one. Many of the characters were lacking in depth, and the script was often childish. Nevertheless, it was a moving and authentic re-enactment of an important part of the War of Independence, with a new twist. It was particularly fascinating to get a glimpse of how some Egyptians saw us during that war, as not much more than a bunch of colonizers who were settling on contested land. Bringing the Egyptian narrative into the film was an important innovation—it allowed us to see “the other side” for once in one of our wars, and help us get some insights into what they were thinking and feeling.
Without offering a spoiler, history has taught us that Israel lost the battle for Nitzanim, but Egypt never succeeded in its main goal of destroying Tel Aviv (and eliminating the state of Israel!) and therefore Egypt (and the other Arab countries) lost the war, even though they won this particular battle. Historians in Israel in recent years have revealed that even though the Arab armies were larger and better equipped (as we saw in this film), the young Israeli army was better organized, which was one of the main reasons that it was able to be victorious.
Avi Nesher is a highly acclaimed filmmaker and many of his films have been previously reviewed on this blog. In his earlier period, in the 70s, he made Sing Your Heart Out (The Troupe) and Dizengoff 99. After a long period of filmmaking in Hollywood, he returned to work in Israel and made Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), Secrets (2007), Matchmaker (2010), Wonders (2013), Past Life (2016), The Other Story (2018).