Joseph Cedar

Israeli director explores Religious Zionist community to great acclaim.

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For a decade, the Academy Awards ignored the burgeoning new wave of films by young Israeli directors, which began in the late 1990s. But in 2008, Israel returned to the movies' annual evening of self-congratulation. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort was honored as one of the finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, although the Oscar ended up being awarded to another Jewish-themed film, Austria's The Counterfeiters.

Israeli cinema had already been in the limelight in the run-up to the nominations, with the country's initial candidate, the crowd-pleasing The Band's Visit, ruled ineligible because it is primarily in English. In its place, Israel selected Beaufort as its official entry, which turned out to be a fortuitous choice. 

Generally, the Academy does not like cross-country hybrids for its foreign-language nominees, so the members may have been less than thrilled to discover that Beaufort--like The Band’s Visit--also has a blemished national heritage. 

Joseph Cedar

Its director, Joseph Cedar, is indeed an Israeli, but he was born in the United States and attended film school at New York University. Cedar immigrated to Israel with his parents when he was 6, and lived in a religious community in Jerusalem's Bayit v’Gan neighborhood. He served as a paratrooper in the army before attending Hebrew University, where he studied theater. 

Cedar's NYU training is apparent in his films' sheen--a careful polish to their editing and cinematography that is associated with Hollywood. Cedar is part of a youth movement in Israeli cinema, filmmakers inspired by American standards, who nonetheless make inward-looking Israeli films.

Time of Favor

For his first two efforts, Cedar was primarily concerned with a segment of the Israeli population that remains deeply underrepresented on film: the dati-leumi or religious Zionists. Cedar himself grew up as part of the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva movement, and is one of the few religiously affiliated Israeli filmmakers.

Time of Favor (Ha-hesder), Cedar's acclaimed debut, takes place in a West Bank settlement where young men dedicate themselves to the study of Torah, with occasional breaks for military service. Two star students, Menachem and Pini, jostle for the recognition of their beloved rabbi--and his beautiful daughter. Sex, religion, and politics blend into a volatile stew, and thwarted desire leads to a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, erase the Muslim presence there, and reclaim it for a third Temple.

At times overly melodramatic and farfetched, Time of Favor does possess an organic understanding of the religious-Zionist world: its strength, its passion, and its contradictions. Where most Israeli films seem to take place among well-scrubbed secular Tel Aviv residents, Time of Favor was one of the first major Israeli films to acknowledge the resurgence of religious Zionism as a major force in Israeli life. The film won 5 Israeli Academy Awards, including best film, but some religious Zionists were offended by it, seeing it as a harsh, overblown critique of their ideological choices.

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Saul Austerlitz

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

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