"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, April 29, 2009

Two films by Avi Nesher

In recent years, filmmaker Avi Nesher (originally known for Sing Your Heart Out and Dizengoff '99, who was working in Hollywood for many years), has returned to Israel and made two feature films about teenage girls. Both became immediate hits: Turn Left at the End of the World (2004) and The Secrets (2007).

Turn Left at the End of the World
The story takes place in a desolate development town and focuses on the friendship between the daughter of French-speaking Jews from Morocco and the daughter of educated English-speaking Jews from India. Notwithstanding the tensions between the two immigrant groups, the film is filled with charm and depth, all on the background of a desert town, where the only employment is at the local glass factory. Add cricket, 1960s dancing and period clothes, a love affair, a mikveh scene, and tension among the Moroccans themselves -- between the French-speaking ones and the superstitious, uneducated ones. Perhaps the greatest feature of the film is its quirky and real-life characters.

The Secrets
This is a painful story of two religious girls, studying at a midrashah (a girls' yeshivah) in Tsfat. Their developing relationship revolves around their encounter with a mysterious French woman. A film of great complexity, this is about love and forgiveness, life and death, superstition and humor.

Nomi is the daughter of a rabbi, a learned man, and she loves the study of Torah. Her greatest desire is to study and be equal to men who study. Her father has chosen for her a Talmud protégé, but she is not in love with him. After her mother's death, Nomi goes to Tsfat for a year of study and is assigned, together with Michelle, a girl who has come to the midrashah from Europe, to visit and bring food to a French woman (Fanny Ardent), living in the area. Most of the narrative construct is built around the relationship between Michelle and Nomi as they are helping the older woman in her need to seek forgiveness for the things she has done in her life.

The film is filled with life-cycle events -- a scene of shiva'a for Nomi's mother, a kabbalistic (almost pagan) scene of rebirth for the French woman, and a wonderful, concluding wedding scene of Michelle's marriage to a lively and humorous klezmer musician.

One of these films takes place on the background of life in a development town and the other in the world of ultra-orthodox Judaism. What do they have in common?

Both films are filled with quirky characters, wonderful vignettes and include a fair amount of female frontal nudity and sex. In both, the narrative deals mainly with teenage adolescent angst and focuses on the relationship between two girls from very different backgrounds. In both films, there are lesbian tendencies in the relationship between the girls.

These films are about the conflict between tradition and modernity, focusing on the challenge for a young woman to break out of the constraints and roles that are set for her in a traditional society. Both films conclude with one of the girls remaining within the boundaries set for her by her community and the other is empowered to leave the community. In the first film, Turn Left at the End of the World – as the film ends, one of the girls leaves the development town and one remains; in the second film, The Secrets -- as Michelle goes forward with her wedding, Nomi cancels hers. Leaving the accepted framework of her life, Nomi decides to devote her life to study and moves into her own apartment, thus she has stepped out of the boundary that was created for her by the man's world of ultra-orthodoxy.

Although the young women in these two films represent specific communities – either ethnic characters or ultra-orthodox women – they are portrayed as in-depth and complex characters whose motivations and rebellions are seen as authentic and realistic. In fact this reflects a trend in recent years of Israeli filmmaking in which there have been a plethora of quality films dealing with intensive relationships between women. This comes in direct contrast to earlier films which had largely marginalized women and women's issues, and which portrayed women only in supporting roles or as stereotypes, such as ethnic characters or war widows. In recent years, this has changed remarkably as we now see a large number of films offering complex narratives dealing with close and difficult relationships between women.

(Additional recent portrayals of women include: Noodle, Aviva My Love, Jellyfish, Syrian Bride, Free Zone, The Lemon Tree, Three Mothers, Seven Days, Or, Nina's Tragedies, Trumpet in the Wadi, and more.)

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