Contemporary Israeli Film

Filmmakers find a uniquely Israeli voice.

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Georgian immigrant Dover Kosashvili was similarly interested in the unfamiliar lives of Israelis who did not fit the middle-class Ashkenazic stereotype. His Late Marriage documented some of the mystifying customs of the closely huddled Georgian community in Israel. Late Marriage was a well-wrought tale of tradition colliding with desire, but instead of demonizing the former, as most American films might have, Kosashvili honors Georgian Jewish custom while simultaneously reflecting its stultifying airlessness. Late Marriage thrives on ambiguity: Is protagonist Zaza’s marriage to a woman selected by his parents a blessed commingling of desire between the older generation and the younger, or a callow, cowardly act of kowtowing to authority? Kosashvili does not tell us, and his coyness helped make Late Marriage one of the best films to emerge from Israel in recent memory.

Along with Kosashvili, Yedaya, and Fox, the other major filmmakers of the past 15 years were veterans Shemi Zarhin and Eran Riklis and newcomer Joseph Cedar. Cedar, an NYU-educated American immigrant, made Hollywood-esque thrillers flavored with an impressive knowledge of Israeli cultural history, especially of the religious type. Religious Zionist messianists figure centrally in his Israeli Academy Award-winning Time of Favor (2000), and the settler movement is similarly featured in Campfire (2004). Riklis’ career betrayed a wide-ranging interest in storytelling, from the musical biopic Zohar (1993) to the bittersweet Lebanon war drama Cup Final (1991) to the eye-opening depiction of Israeli Arab life along the Syrian border in The Syrian Bride (2004). Zarhin’s Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi was a tender evocation of teenage anomie, its insight benefiting from its careful analysis of working-class Sephardic life.

In the past fifteen years, Israeli film has grown into its own skin, finding its unique subject matter, style, and mise-en-scene. During that time, Israel has become a world center of filmmaking, with one of the most vibrant groups of young filmmakers of any country. For Israeli filmmakers, though, the burning affairs of domestic life, and the ever-looming Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are too immediate for distraction and mindless entertainment to rule the day. Israelis look to films for a chance to wrestle with their country’s demons, and this seeming limitation of Israeli film has become, in the end, its salvation.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.