Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Foxtrot (Israel, 2017)

In this film a family tragedy dramatizes the weakness of the besieged Israel’s strength. 
The paradox centers in the father, Michael, whose apparent stoicism under pressure conceals his profound guilt about a long-buried army death. As commander he let another jeep proceed before him, only to see it exploded by a landmine. Michael can’t forget his helplessness as he watched his comrades burned alive, screaming. This is the second generation of "survivor guilt." 
  Writer-director Samuel Maoz frames his narrative with the perspective of a jeep following an empty desert road.  The viewer is not identified in the pre-title sequence. At the end we see the trip is by son Jonathan. He has been summoned home as a reward to his parents for having suffered through the erroneous report of his death. (A different Jonathan Feldman was killed, i.e., a parallel repetition of this tragedy.) The scene and the film end on Jonathan’s fatal accident. Swerving to avoid a camel on the road, the jeep plunges off the road to destruction. The army honours the hapless victim as “fallen in the line of duty.” The framing shots suggest the story's ending is present in its beginning.
The narrative takes three quite different stages. In the first Michael and Dafna Feldman are informed that their son Jonathan has “fallen in the line of duty.” Dafna faints at the doorway sight of the army messengers. She knows what their message must be. This is the predicament of the continuing siege against Israel, which makes every citizen a soldier. Michael proceeds stiffly, manfully containing his grief. In his sensitivity every sound registers loud: his body hitting a bed, the dog hammering the door to get in. Numbed, Michael scalds his hand for feeling. In this scene Dafna seems weaker, he strong; this will be reversed.
As a hint of that false strength, his hollow stoicism, Michael kicks his dog -- for the temerity of still being alive. But the dog remains faithful, tentative in his returns but always coming back to him. Like Israeli citizens persisting under attack, Max the dog bears his pain and carries on. But like this family — and real Israelis, and Israel — the dog is silently bleeding within.
The Feldmans’ emotions — drugged and suppressed, respectively — contrast to the soldiers’ practiced efficiency. They set a beeper to go off hourly to remind Michael to drink a glass of water. They offer to help — to tell the friends and family, to arrange the funeral — so methodically that we know the Israeli predicament has thus regularized the report of a soldier’s death to his parents. And “There’s always a friend who plays the guitar.”  We don’t see the other Feldman family’s validated pain, but we can guess it. This is the normalization of loss —and we witness its psychological and moral cost.
Jonathan’s German grandmother, Michael’s mother, “understands everything and nothing.” She has her own vast blind spot. As strength can be weakness, knowledge can be ignorance. She registers the news of Jonathan’s supposed death but doesn’t grasp it. She calls Michael by his brother’s name, Avigdor. Her speaking German instead of Hebrew shows her rooted in her past.
  The characters’ disorder is imaged in the  background artworks. Dafna’s fainting reveals the drawing behind her, a large layering of black squares jumbling into the distance. The emblem of order and stability — the square — here expresses a vertiginous confusion.  As the art contrasts to the solid, vertical lines in the Feldmans’ interior design, it visualizes the family’s erupting emotions breaking their attempt at stability. To the same effect, the film often interrupts the direct shots with high angle views that set our secure perspectives aspin. Michael shown against a floor of geometric cubes is similarly dizzying and unstable. Michael’s den has another black and white abstract painting — a fuzzied horizon line that evokes an ECG.
  Michael loses even his strained composure when he learns his son is alive after all. He wants him sent home immediately, to   confirm his survival. In his emotional rollercoaster, the good news proves as hard to accommodate than the  terrible was. 
***
In contrast to the tragic tension of the first episode, the second presents the deadly monotony of Jonathan and his three comrades guarding a remote supply route. “I’m at the end of the world and there’s no reception,” Jonathan reports. Wi-fi rules. But not here. Their boredom is imaged in the salience accorded the insignificant. A lengthy closeup follows a screwdriver penetrating some unidentified mechanism. The men know their trailer is sinking because a can of their food rolls down the floor — one second faster each day. With nothing better to do, they time it.
     The establishing shot defines their situation: a crossing rail, a booth, a bunker, a rusted green van painted with a fading blonde. Jonathan’s secularity and sexual awakening are imaged in that washed out pinup girl. The station stuck in the empty desert seems absurd. A high angle shot makes the muddy landscape seem an abstract painting, a gritty, cluttered alternative to the Feldmans’ art.  
    A video game suggests the soldiers are living in suspended animation. Way out there they are “fighting a psychological war.” “What are we fighting here?” applies to their real life as well as to their game. The soldiers may themselves be playing roles in a drama beyond their awareness, as if filmed (which, of course, their characters are). As their lives seem sapped of logic and reality, they relate to a cartoon: “Roger Rabbit must have had a hell of a tool to get Jessica.”
      To pass the time Jonathan recalls his father’s “last bedtime story.” Michael broke the family tradition — passing the ancient family Bible on to the next generation of soldier — when he swapped it for a skin magazine (Bellboy), with a buxom cover beauty with Xed-out nipples. That is secularity. The X-ing signifies the tension between the desire and the ban. After the initial magazine is enjoyed by Michael’s friends, its pages are stuck together. A replacement issue becomes the new heritage. But the masturbation motif here will collect relevance when we turn to the metaphor of dance, solitary vs connected. 
     The combination of official power and empty time, the debilitating boredom, plays out in the four intrusions by “clients.”  A van full of boxed toys is allowed through, but relieved of a small mechanical robot. That patrols the road in false, low-angle heroism until it falls down, abandoned, a parody of the soldiers' predicament. 
The first couple are treated brusquely, then passed. Not so fortunate the second. The guards have the be-gowned woman and her suited man stand in the rain, humiliated, in their prolonged process. The guards ruin the couple’s evening out — because they can. The couple try to smile to each other, stoically, but the woman weeps. With power comes idle cruelty, with idleness a thirst for amusement.  
The gathering boredom and the guards’ increasing sense both of their power and their insecurity lead to the disaster of the fourth incident. Two young couples arrive in a car. In the backseat the two are snuggling happily. The driver and the front-passenger girl are sufficiently detached that she and Jonathan exchange glances of possible interest.  
But when an object falls out of the car a solider cries “grenade” and Jonathan machine guns the car. He kills all four. The “grenade” was a beer can, now bleeding into the mud. 
  The code “The rhino is in the puddle” summons a bulldozer to bury the car and its passengers. The crime is buried with the practiced efficiency the army showed in the opening scene. So, too, the firm commander: “War is war. In a war shit happens. What happens happens.” The case is closed before it is opened. 
       This scene provoked the Israeli government's angry rejection of the film. They denied they would bury such a terrible error. But this fiction does not pretend to literal truth. Still, in war shit happens. Also errors. Not all errors are advertised.  The point of this offending scene is the gathering danger of unchecked power, even if defensive. Unchecked, both the defensive soldiers' power and their insecurity grow. Hence the increasing seriousness across the scenes of their exchange with travellers. The Israelis' fear grows along with their swelling power.
       But if Jonathan escapes man’s justice, his absurd traffic accident en route home is absurd enough to seem divine justice.
***
Another animation bridges the second and third sections. This is the comic book Jonathan drew explaining his grandmother’s concentration camp experience and her breakdown after Michael’s traumatic experience. The last drawing is a cartoon of the bulldozer hoisting the evidence of Jonathan’s crime before its burial. He seems as haunted by his tragic incident as his father was by his. As Jonathan cartoons his father’s Last Bedtime Story, a coming of age ritual, he includes his own personal admission of responsibility.
  In the third section, the Feldmans’ brief relief is destroyed by word Michael has been killed en route home. As Dafna works her pomegranate seeds her hands seem bloodied by her son’s death. She blames Michael’s insistence upon their son’s return for his death. She reminisces about their marriage and her reluctance to have any children: “I remember thinking I was going to be happy.” Michael talked her out of an abortion. To him, having Jonathan was God’s proof He forgave him for his military accident. But now “The pain of not having him never goes away.”
       Then there is the absurdity of his death: “Why couldn’t he be dead when they first told us?” The brief hope made the tragedy worse. Now Dafna chafes at being with Michael, resenting his words, impatient with his “false strengths.” Her earlier sympathy for his demons has been exhausted.
The parents adopt Jonathan’s last drawing as an image of their marriage. Each sees themself as the hapless car, their partner as the bulldozer. But sharing a joint recovers their connection. They laugh at the ritualized funerals: “The national anthem Let’s not forget that.” Now they see their lost son as a “fallen” soldier ascended to the angels: “He’s probably partying right now, having a spiritual multiple orgasm.” That’s how daughter Alma finds them, giddily stoned: “You’re beautiful when you’re together.” 
And so to the title. “Foxtrot” is the code name for the outpost where Jonathan serves. As an emblem of liveliness, there’s a dance class at the seniors’ home where Michael visits his mother with the bad news. Five dancing couples are joined by a woman dancing alone, both freed and isolated. Her dance may be lyrical individuality or madness. For the couples' dance suggests the ritualization of possibly disruptive energies. As Jonathan demonstrates the dance to his comrades, he’s too spirited to stay with the foxtrot. He bursts into a comic mambo, sensually engaging his dance partner — his rifle. Like the earlier woman's lyrical solo, his sillier one contrasts to the couple or the communal dance — solitary, masturbatory, an unconstructive indulgence. 
  Michael and Dafna finally come together -- stoned -- and dance. As Michael describes the foxtrot, they take a step forward, a step sideways, then it’s back to their starting point. Instead of progress there’s stasis: “No matter where you go, you always end up at the same place.” The spirited foxtrot becomes a metaphor for quite the contrary: the hopeless ritual in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves locked. Each side replays its own steps -- without either getting anywhere. In politics as in relationships, in the family, progress and growth depend upon reciprocal connections and advances. In politics as in sex, a partner improves the situation. Otherwise you have the masturbation of the sticky magazine and Jonathan's erotic dance with his rifle. 
  Michael and Dafna bury their losses and their differences when they slip into a close waltz, viscerally bridging their solitudes. But for besieged Israel there is no waltz, just that bitter, futile foxtrot, the compulsion of security: “No matter where you go, you always end up at the same place.”
       As Maoz makes his focus the Israeli response to the implicit Palestinian threat he doesn’t retell its history. The Palestinians here are themselves victims of the Palestinian assault against Israel — via Israels’ defensive measures. Instead Maoz focuses on the challenge to the Israelis’ moral compass. He’s examining the Israeli’s frozen foxtrot, not the Palestinians’. But the lesson holds for both partners not yet dancing together. As the exchange of glances between Jonathan and the doomed girl suggests, enemies should be screwing each other instead of trying to screw each other. 
      This film is an insightful, moving revelation. Its dramatic shifts in tone, with surprises and shock at every turn, make this an emotional roller-coaster. 
      But in framing out the Palestinian threat, the film may be read as suggesting that the regional problem derives from Israel’s moral compass. But under existential threat what alternative does Israel have to hard security measures? Of course, Israel can't control what the Palestinians do. They can only govern their own responses. Hence the drama's focus on Israel's practice, not their enemy's.
       Where are the Palestinian films that question the genocidal campaign that has for a century prevented their peaceful coexistence? After all, as with the proverbial tango, it takes two to foxtrot.
      Finally, credit to Maoz’s implicit revision of Chekov: A camel planted in Act 2 must prove fatal in Act 5. 



This 2017 Israeli film virtually swept the Israeli Film Academy Awards and won Best Film at the Athens, Capri, Macao, Luxembourg, Moscow Jewish ,Munich, Venice and Zagreb Film Festivals

Monday, September 16, 2019

Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive

I saw this film a week after I read a column that claimed “Israel’s biggest secret” is its memories of the traumatic terrorist years around 2000. In this election year Israelis don’t want to remember the days when they lived under constant terrorist threat. The wall, the checkpoints, a heightened security system — these responses to that threat bring Israel criticism from the outside world but they have checked that nightmare.
Here Ronen is an idealistic shlub whose determination NOT to forget those slaughters leads him to give tourists free tours of those terror sites. In his purity he won’t charge for those tours. “This is not a business.” Indeed he won’t even let his (nonpaying) tenant use those tours to sell his related souvenirs, including a t-shirt with the film’s title on the front and unexploded dynamite on the back.   
Ronen’s memories vividly connect the public slaughter with his personal experiences. The loss of his mother to cancer introduced his grasp of mortality, which was heightened by the years of terrorism. At the same time as he’s haunted by the ghosts of Jaffa Street, he’s struggling to evade his doddering old dad’s desire to be dependent upon him. Both in his father’s home and in the streets Ronen is burdened by the past. It threatens paralysis, especially when he meets the beautiful Asia (an Israeli living in Barcelona) with the prospect of a romantic future.
Ronen’s ultimate success is to leave both pasts behind him. He bequeaths his tour to that more practical-minded roomie and leaves his father to stop expecting his son to live at his beck and call.  Ronen leaves the death-echoes of the street for a bright-blue escape to the Dead Sea. Getting into that swim implicitly promises his renewed connection with the  Asia. 
Asia is immediately attracted to Ronen’s seriousness and gravity, which seem a challenge to her characteristic exuberance and joy. Yet her enigmatic sombre close-up in their first bed scene suggests she too carries a cognate gravitas. She has brought hers under control. Still, the insecurity is there, as we see in her brittleness when Ronen responds sleepily to the first breakfast she makes him.
     Asia is a student in architecture. Her term paper is a study comparing the modern and the old Jaffa Street. That’s Ronen’s territory too. But where he obsesses on the past she strides into the constructive future. At the end we hope she is still there for him. Yes or no, he's finally taking his plunge away from the haunting past.  
      Ronen is abetted by a young Japanese man who initially takes his terrorist tour, then brings others and ends up a volunteer aide on all the tours. As the Japanese are attracted to the tour of terrorist attacks they carry associations of their own atomic past. Moreover, this group is there because they love Israel. They even perform a Hebrew song. This is Israel freed from its religious past and from its neighbouring  threats. The Japanese love Israel for what it is, an impressive modern achievement risen from the ashes of tragedy. This broader context may explain the echo of the Japanese warrior in Ronen's name.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Autonomies -- the 2018 Israeli TV series

Autonomies: A brief analysis

      After their hugely successful collaboration on Shtisel, writer Ori Elon and writer/director Yehonatan Indursky developed another family drama with more explicit political dimensions. The six-episode TV series Autonomies was later reset into five for a 3 1/2-hour feature film release. That's the version I discuss here.
      In Autonomies the authors posit an Israel in the aftermath of a near-future civil war.  That began with an orthodox demonstration in which 13 yeshiva students were killed. Thirty years later, the ultra-orthodox have established the Haredi state Autonomy, centered in Jerusalem. The secular State of Israel has its capital in Tel Aviv. As in Shtisel, the writers have stepped away from the more common conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, choosing instead to focus on tensions within the Israeli Jewish community.
      Their respective cultures are instantly identifiable. Two girls with bare and tattooed legs connote Tel Aviv. At the Autonomy’s border entry point Haredim solicit donations to charity. Clearly the modern thrives more than the old. Indeed the Autonomy hospitals are unfunded, with decaying equipment and salaries suspended for two years -- hence the campaign to rejoin Israel. 
      In the title graphics a diminutive orthodox Jew is dwarfed by a landscape of columns and a gigantic book that threatens to swallow him up in its pages. The figure points ahead to the drama’s hero, Yoni Broide, a virtuous but weak orthodox Jew advertising himself as an "orthodox undertaker." His name summons up the story of Jonah (which he retells in Episode 4), that crucial story in the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Like Jonah, Yoni will try -- futilely — to escape his commitments, both to family and to God. He will sink into adultery and kidnapping before he achieves the purity for his ultimate sacrifice.
For Yoni and for the other characters, there is a constant struggle between their personal will and their responsibilities. That is, personal autonomy is as much an issue here as that of the orthodox state.  
      Now the two forms of Judaism are considering reunification. Many in the State are opposed to renewing their excessive support of the orthodox "parasites," who refuse to join the Israeli army, detach themselves from the social mainstream and promote a narrow, antiquated school curriculum. The orthodox refuse to surrender any of their authority and consider the modern Jews to be apostates. According to the Autonomy’s leader, the Rebbe from Kreinitz, reuniting with the Zionists is equivalent to sinking Noah’s Ark and accepting the destruction of the Jews.
      In Shtisel the family drama serves to define the larger problems of authoritarianism, especially in the patriarchy. Here the larger political drama threatens the unity of two families, united by a nursery fatality and threatened with disintegration. Implicitly, the film also dramatizes the dangers of destroying the separation of church and state. Explicitly, it plays on the homonymous themes of personal autonomy and atonement,


Episode 1. The occurrence yearned to occur

      The opening title’s “occurrence” can be taken to refer to the original separation by the orthodox, the pressure for their reunification or the respective states’ confronting each other over the fate of a nine-year-old child, Gonnie. All seem inevitable outgrowths of the current tensions. 
      Yoni Broide is initially outside that struggle. He is an orthodox Jew who uses his Burial Society job delivering corpses for burial as a front to smuggle forbidden materials into the Autonomy. He has his principles: He won’t put pork next to a corpse. But he  sneaks in porn videos and forbidden books. In this culture even children’s books are held back if not certified kosher. Broide is surprised to learn that his client for the smuggled Freud and Thucydides is the Autonomy’s leader, the Rebbe from Kreinitz. 
      In asking the Rebbe to pray for him, Broide identifies himself as Yona ben Leah. That is, by his mother’s name not his father’s. His motivation remains enigmatic even when we later learn that his father — a soft, attentive man to whom he was very close —  was killed in the yeshiva demonstration that led to the Autonomy’s independence. Young Yoni had coaxed his unwilling father to go.
      Broide seems to grow out of the Lippe character in Shtisel. He’s torn between the orthodox restrictions imposed on him and his instinctive attraction to secular temptations. Despite — or because — he has a tight family life, with an orthodox wife Bluma and four children, he slips into an affair with the blonde jazz saxaphonist Anna, He meets her when he collects her dead partner Gabriel for his lonely, orthodox burial in Jerusalem. 
      In continually calling Anna Hannah, Broide subconsciously stifles the obvious reminder of his wife’s name Bluma in Anna’s surname Blum. He's altering the other name to avoid the problematic one. This name confusion also recalls Ruchami’s “Hanna Karenina,” the doomed, romantic heroine she domesticates to fit the Haredi vision. Broide courts Anna with his interest in jazz, proving his sincerity with a melodious "Lover Man.”
       Broide expresses a non-religious philosophy. “There aren’t enough people for all the pain in the world,” he consoles Anna. He turns an adage to seductive purpose: “A Jew mustn’t hold back. We’re held back as it is.” And to the child he’s feeding: “Jews have to eat a lot so when the wolf comes he’ll have something to devour.” 
      Broide sins but only with difficulty: "I should've been a good person.” But his recurring "penitence attack...will go away soon.” He pauses his first intimacy with Anna to go to the washroom to suppress his conscience, to stave off another penitence attack. 
      Most of the first episode explains the opening scene, where Asher and Batia Luzzatto are informed there is a “stay of exit order” against their nine-year-old daughter Gonnie leaving the State of Israel. A nurse has just confessed to having accidentally suffocated this couple’s newborn daughter, then switched her wristband with the daughter of Elka and Hilik Rein. This switch suggests how destructive an impulsive and emotional action can prove, on the national as well as individual level. 
      The news shakes both families. In parallel lawyer scenes both sides determine to “go to war” over the innocent little girl. The Autonomy legal scene is shot dark and sombre, as if pre-Enlightenment. The State one is in gleaming whites. Gonnie’s functional parents are determined to keep her, despite their having just decided to separate. Their lawyer insists they conceal this intention, which could destroy their case. 
      Against her husband’s reservations, Elke insists on recovering their lost daughter. Elka is passionately supported by her father, the Rebbe of Kreinitz, but for suspect motives.  He turns the family tragedy into a national political issue, to reinforce his political control.  At a massive rally the Rebbe insists that the child must by Biblical authority be raised orthodox. ”Not one Jewish soul shall be wasted.” The Rebbe is an amplification of the callous religious authority that Shulem Shtisel wielded in the writers’ earlier critique of patriarchy. 
      To avoid another civil war, the magistrate suggests a compromise: the birth and foster parents divide their weekly time with the child. Elka accepts this but her husband cites her father's patriarchal authority.  When the magistrate then decides to leave Gonnie with the parents who raised her, the Rebbe turns his family issue into a political rebellion.
      As Shulem did, the Rebbe pretends to divine authority:  “We have no choice. It’s time to do God’s will. We must wage war to recover the child.” He diminishes his personal interest: “This is not my granddaughter but the granddaughter of the Jewish people….  We won’t let the Zionists steal our children.” Echoing the Rebbe’s pretence to purity, his daughter’s married name is Rein (yiddish for ‘clean’). Similarly, her husband Hilik is slightly off ‘Heilik’ (holy), the way ‘Shulem’ was off ‘Sholom.’ The Rebbe dismisses the courts as secular idiots who have abandoned the Torah, his source of authority. As the Rebbe incites his people Broide recalls the yeshiva riot that killed his father: "It starts again."  
      Trying to persuade Broide to kidnap Gonnie for him, the Rebbe pretends to humility. He does not have divine inspiration, he admits. But he presumes to know God’s will, what God wants of him and of others: “If this is what God wants, you will do it.” As Broide leaves, the Rebbe looks away, out his car window, at the darkness. Himself a force of darkness, he will push Broide to criminal lengths for what he claims is God’s will. 
      To coerce Broide into kidnapping Gonnie the Rebbe unleashes the full force of the/his law. Police raid Broide's home, forcing him to move all his contraband material into a country bunker. That they then destroy. They intrude upon his son's birthday party with naked force. Cutting himself a piece of birthday cake, the policeman pauses for the blessing on God's gift of various nourishment. The piety barely hides his sinister brutishness. 
      Here lie the wider range of autonomy issues among the characters. Blumi, Anna, both sets of warring parents, the arrogant Rebbe and especially the conflicted Broide all wrestle with the constant battle between their urges and their restraints. Autonomy is their every impulse -- and affliction. 
         As Broide lies in bed, contemplative, his peace assailed by Anna’s allure and the Rebbe’s demands, the song says “Winter came around one hour too soon. Now I am dancing alone in my room. Rise, rise, only for me.”  Like Gonnie in the opening scene, Broide is unwittingly trapped in his own "stay of exit order," imposed by the Rebbe who uses God to enforce his personal will. 

Episode 2. A hymn for the homeless.

A variety of homeless or uprooted define the second episode.
Some Haredim plead with the Rebbe to allow the reunion of the orthodox and Zionist states. The Autonomy is suffering economically. Its hospitals are in decline and have been unable to pay salaries for two years. The Rebbe dismisses these concerns by declaring the problems to be God’s will. 
To persuade Broide to kidnap Gonnie the Rebbe insists he has God’s intention in mind. When Broide declares he has quit his smuggling operation and wants to be left alone, the Rebbe suggests this moral conversion is evil. It’s an attempt to sway Broide from God’s — i.e., the Rebbe’s — cause. As someone capable of wrong-doing, “You can destroy the world, but you can also fix it.” To the Rebbe, “the world” is just his will. 
Broide is helpless. As he initially drives home at night the radio jazz catches his secular inclination and his desire for the saxophonist Anna. She’s now angry at his revelation — post-coital — that he has a wife and four children. To her “drop dead” he replies “I died a long time ago.” In her and in the secular life he hopes for a rebirth, a new life and home. 
When he see his bunker contraband burning and learns his children have been expelled from their good schools, he feels the Rebbe’s power, holy but malevolent. That’s another homelessness, commitment to a corrupted faith.
Broide’s attempt to go straight is snarled by his reputation. Son Tzviki is alienated after slugging a boy who said Broide was a “shaygetz,” literally a gentile, but by implication a failure or criminal. Broide’s unpleasant job — loading and delivering at a supermarket — is disrupted when his boss Bubchik also calls him that. At Broide’s objection the boss shoves him several times. Broide’s retaliatory push accidentally kills him. In jail Broide is at his most homeless, unsupported, vulnerable, and thus doomed to the Rebbe’s offer to free him in return for kidnapping Gonnie.   
      Earlier, a pause in the washroom — as in his scene with Anna in the first episode — strengthened Broide to reject the Rebbe’s criminal demand. But the murder charge clearly rewrites Broide’s life. Again the Rebbe asserts God’s will: “What more needs to happen for you to know God’s plan for you?” For his family’s interest Broide agrees, after ensuring that the Rebbe will take care of his family and protect both their wellbeing and their eventual marriages. 
Acknowledging he will never return home, Broide instructs the Rebbe to deliver to his wife his get, his divorce, so she will not remain bound to him. Like the first episode, this one closes on Broide’s flashback to his father’s death at the demonstration. A second father is lost to his family, this time the first one’s son. 
  The two conflicting families also reflect incompleteness in the home. At their shabbos service Elka insists her husband bless their missing daughter as well as their present kids. To her, Gonnie is homeless until she’s with the parents she has never known. 
Even within her present family, Gonnie is bounced between two incomplete homes. Asher moves from sleeping on the couch to moving in with friend Victor. The playboy’s pad is no home for Asher. Batia rejects his reconciliation attempts as continuing to suffocate her. 
In despair Asher makes a serious move against Batia. In an anonymous phone call he informs the Reins’ lawyer that Gonnie’s adoptive parents are separated. This strengthens the Reins’ case for an appeal to claim her. Even more rootless now, Asher hangs himself — but is saved by Victor’s timely return home with a date.  
As in Shtisel, here the plot provides a range of human effort, much malevolent, some desperate, most self-serving, which the ostensibly pious attribute to God. They empower themselves and advance their selfish ends by claiming to be in His service. Compared to them the petty porn smuggler and adulterer emerges as moral. He at least practices penitence, however frequently and briefly, and humbly aspires to a better self. 

Episode 3. On Time and Terror

The kidnapping episode is presented on a juggled time-scheme, to evoke the characters’ tension, anxiety, confusion, and the moral chaos of the situation. This criminal act is — on both the characters’ domestic level and on the troubled religio-political front  — a sign of all coherence gone.  Like Broide’s recurrent flashbacks to his father’s fatal presence at the protest, the shifting tenses confirm the continuing influence of the past.
In parallel confessions Broide tells first wife Bluma then girlfriend Anna about the murder and his need to escape. He leaves Bluma weeping helplessly, freed but unwilling to remarry.  Told of his enigmatic escape plan, Anna immediately volunteers to abet and to leave with him. She is assured that the deed he will get big bucks for committing must be legal because it’s on high command — from the Rebbe of Kreinitz himself, he does not explain.
With his sidelocks clipped and wearing a flashy sport shirt Broide is a different man, visibly stripped of his orthodoxy. As another emblem of his new life, there’s a painting of a  nude woman above Anna’s bed. Defining his new culture, this is as quietly eloquent as the crucifix over Lippe’s bed in Shtisel, when he phones Giti to plan to return.   
In a more expensive transformation Broide orders blackmarket passports for himself and for the black-wigged Anna (at $6,000 each). Germany and Hungary are a problem (as usual) so they’ll have to be Estonian. We watch full-screen the passport ID photos transformation. How fluid identity in the modern world. 
In a more regrettable transformation Asher, having betrayed Batia by reporting their separation, now cruelly blames her for Gonnie’s abduction — as well as having destroyed their home and marriage. His anger and — possibly unacknowledged — guilt turn him cruel. As the kidnap plan unfolds, Anna exploits Batia’s new dressmaking business and her desire to satisfy Gonnie’s desire for music lessons, virtues that leave her vulnerable.   
  After Anna’s photo is televised as one of the kidnappers and the Rebbe changes the plan, demanding Broide take Gonnie to Kreinitz in the Ukraine instead of their local meeting, the net tightens around Broide. The police arrest of the Rebbe provokes another riot of religious indignation against the secular order. 
The time-juggle allows for one trick on our judgment. At one point Gonnie refers to her abductors as if they were her real parents. We may infer this was their expedient lie. But we later see the earlier scene in which she says she has guessed they are her real parents. They do not correct her. When she phones Batia she says she wanted to meet them but she misses her adoptive parents. She wants them to reunite so she won’t have to hear their quarrels. That Batia promises.
  In the episode’s key discussion Broide tells Anna that he learned real fear when he was nine years old; it’s the wound he has learned to live with since. Again the episode closes on that primal scene. He witnesses his father’s murder in the riot. “You can’t take fear to the grocery store,” Broide advises. But it enables his desperate attempt to salvage his spirit and to make a new life. 


  Episode 4. High Walls in the Heart
       The title points to both the personal and socio-religious obstacles to ardent commitment. At the episode’s core is the Jonah story that Broide tells Gonnie, to calm her as a truck smuggles them across the border.  The story proves “You can’t run away from God the Almighty.” Jonah’s attempt to imperils the ship on which he is fleeing God’s assignment, resulting in the storm, his ejection and his swallowing by the whale. In despair and alienation Jonah stumbles through the darkness inside the whale: “like here inside the truck’s belly.” 
The police station scenes present a range of isolations, as the Rebbe and the conflicted mothers are interviewed in separate rooms. As ever wielding religion against the law, the Rebbe fends off interrogation by praying and citing homilies: “The angry man is governed by all sorts of evil.” So, by the way, is the self-serving patriarch.
  When Batia is brought in to meet Elka the police fear there may be violence. Instead the women’s emotions bridge their antagonism. “I just want to know [Gonnie’s] all right,” says Batia, logically suspecting the birth-parents are behind the abduction. When Elka approaches her, her intention is not aggressive: “Feel my heart. I would never do that to my child.” Later Elka visits Batia at home to make a joint appeal on the media for Gonnie’s safe return. She surrenders her claim: “Do not fight on our behalf. We have had enough of war.” The voice and values of motherhood oppose the patriarchal ardor for a self-righteous war.
Elka was converted to Batia’s side by the Rebbe’s unwitting confession. Though he denies responsibility for the  kidnapping, he reveals how it serves him. Again pleading God’s support, he claims that God planned the problem of Gonnie’s parenthood to prevent the Autonomy from returning to the former unified Israel. Gonnie has saved the orthodox “from that crisis of unity.” Elka sees through his righteousness to his real purpose — to extend his rule over the Council and the public. “Is this how you see your father?” he asks in weak indignation.
When the Council meets —  in the Rebbe’s house, for additional pressure — he claims that past generations of Jews are watching them, demanding their “right choice for Israel,” their independence from the modern State. He receives no support. 
  In a brief scene Leibish transmits Broide’s divorce to Blumi. She responds with tears and concern for her children, “who love him so much.”
Gonnie’s opposing fathers respond differently to their wives’ initiative. When Batia insists she will not leave the Israeli police station until Gonnie is returned to her, he finds her sleeping erect. Despite having blamed her for the abduction, now he plants a tender kiss. That provokes her rejection: “Moron!” In contrast, Elka returns home to find her Hilik leaving her. Her television appearance has undermined the Autonomy. Now he doubts her ability to raise their children. When the Luzzattos hear Gonnie has been found, they refuse to wait upon the Ukrainian police and hie themselves off to Kreinitz.  
The Rebbe has three responses to his (supposedly religious) political defeat. The stress results in his hospitalization and minor surgery. By his homily, “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” With his political intention thwarted, he can fall back upon proper fatherliness. He tells Elka he now supports Gonnie’s return to the Luzzattos. The TV appearance persuaded him which Jewish mother should hold sway. Instead of admitting political defeat he pretends to respect familial emotion. He despatches Elka and Hilik to Kreinitz with the money to pay Broide and to retrieve Gonnie.
  But the Rebbe tries to rebuild his political hold. He calls on the yeshiva students to immediately go to his hometown, Kreinitz, to establish there the orthodox enclave he sees threatened by the reunion of Israel. They will buy back the original yeshiva building, at whatever cost, to save it from its current function as a gentile cinema. He assigns Rebbe Ichiel to head the new school. The young men follow their leader. 
More sappily, the Rebbe ignores the healthiness that bodes his imminent release from the hospital. Instead he pretends a deathbed request of his faithful aide. Though older, the personal assistant has been like a son to him so would he please say his kaddish (the prayer for dead). With apt bathos, the Rebbe also urges him to stop drinking so much Coke. The secular ever intrudes upon the religious. (Despite his healthy prognosis, in the last episode the Rebbe dies in disappointment.)
Meanwhile the kidnappers’ course does not run smooth. At the Ukraine airport the “family” are taken aside for questioning about their Estonian passports. Broide qualifies by reciting the first lines of Genesis in Estonian. As the interviewing woman continues to scrutinize them suspiciously, Broide disarms her: “You look at me a lot. A lot. I look good.” Smiling, she returns their passports and admits them. “We go to rob a bank,” Broide assures her. “You can come.” 
Her suspicion concerns them, though. Afraid of being recognized, Anna loses her black wig and Broide shaves his full beard and — to Gonnie’s suspicion — doffs his yarmulke. Gonnie has cooperated fully so far, even giving the border official her assumed Estonian boy’s name. But when Broide eats a traif sandwich on the train — which makes him privately vomit — Gonnie concludes that the couple are not her real parents. When they disembark at Heinitz, Gonnie jumps back on the departing train. 
One detail requires special attention. Gonnie’s boy-cap bears the label “Why.” So, why?
  First, the word is a question. Why is Gonnie in this situation? What religious or moral principle has been served by casting her into a familial tug-of-war, then an abduction? Why should she be obliging her ostensible “parents” who are neither her birth nor adoptive ones? Why should this nine-year-old suffer an uprooting trauma like the nine-year-old Broide did?
More broadly, why was she switched away from her parents in the first place? Was this an accident, a human error, a quirk of fate? Or was it indeed an act of divine intervention? As the Rebbe contends — and may or may not actually believe. 
In Shtisel the writers often posed this question, however implicitly. “We are all in God’s hands; we know nothing,” the characters often claim, especially around funerals. But this can also seem a convenient, evasive denial of human agency and responsibility. Thus Nachum always blames someone else for his financial problems. 
But the writers leave open the possibility of divine intervention. Why did Lippe call to report Malka’s coma just in time to abort Giti’s abortion? Why did Ruchami’s glue not work when she posted Lippe’s humiliation? Of all the kugel joints in Jerusalem, why did Hanina for his pre- divorce court lunch choose Giti’s restaurant? Divine direction, accident, or was he returning to the scene — under new ownership — of his impromptu wedding? The writers are respectful enough of religion to allow the possibility of divine intervention, even as that evades human responsibility.
But the “Why” word is also an answer. This child is the reason two factions are fighting for her. But they have different compulsions, different “whys.” To the Rebbe she is a useful instrument for his personal advantage, in the name of a religious cause. That feeds Elka’s and Hilik’s blood-claim on her, which is as tribal as the Rebbe’s authority. To the Luzzattos she is the child they have raised and love. She is also a new reason why to renew their marriage, to give her the comfortable family she craves. Perhaps Batia — with her new career and self-assertion and with her successful campaign to recover her daughter— can give the marriage a second chance, as she has promised Gonnie. Gonnie is the "why" of her cap.
  Beyond the family, Gonnie is the future generation, the “why” for which the liberal Israel here focused on the State, capital Tel Aviv, is in conflict with the orthodox Autonomy, centered in Jerusalem. Here this dystopian fiction reflects a radical tension in the real Israel today. How will the next Israeli generation(s) be raised? Will they be prepared for the challenges and with the opportunities of the new advancing world or will they be restricted to the old ancestral customs and limits? This battle over Gonnie is the battle over what Israel will become.   
But the drama is not over yet. As the title of the final episode warns:

Episode 5. Things turn out differently

As the previous episode was the only one not to close on Broide’s flashback to his father’s murder, this one opens on that old riot and closes on the new one. The opening is a unique composition in this series, a bird’s eye — a.k.a. God’s eye — view of the historic riot’s aftermath. At the dark four-way intersection a line of corpses lie in the middle, with black-suited witnesses behind them. The ambulance flashes at the left. The shot seems to be another “attack of remorse. It’ll pass in an instant.”
At the end Broide awakens in a yeshiva to find the students wielding molotov cocktails against the IDF rifles, deployed to enforce their conscription into the army. As the Autonomy has been annexed into the State, the government is enforcing the army’s claim on all its citizens. The education department is raiding the yeshivas to enforce the addition of basic secular education. 
In between, the kidnapping plot stumbles to conclusion. Gonnie turns herself in to the conductor, who leaves her with the local police. When the two sets of parents meet across the tracks at Kreinitz, with no sign of Gonnie, Asher attacks Hilik and both men are arrested. In the station Batia spots Gonnie and they rush to each other. As the adoptive family leave, Gonnie impulsively runs over to Elka and gives her a long hug. She seems explained by the word “Explore” on the shoulder of her jacket. Hilik notes how like Elka the beautiful Gonnie looks. There is the implicit prospect of both families’ unification.
As Broide and Anna try to find Gonnie (and the money owed him) they are variously distracted. To counter his first frightening flashback Broide urges the non-believing Anna to join him in a hymn — “Song of Ascents” (the hymn Shulem had his class sing in a protest when he sought to recover his lost salary). He corrects Anna’s doubt: “Someone is always listening.”  
Broide wins an old Lada from a rural barkeep by beating him in a chess game. “You’re sure you’re not Jewish?” the defeated stranger asks. Expecting prejudice, Broide had denied his faith. He tells Anna he learned chess from his father, a soft man who played him chess every Friday and only once let him win. His father placed more faith in the Torah than in protest so he didn’t want to go to the yeshiva demonstration. But young Broide insisted so they went: “I still don’t know why God Almighty refused to let my father come home.” He repeats the dubious distinction between human agency and divine intercession.
Broide has been revealing himself only haltingly, to Anna so to us. For: “Broide is like a sausage. Better not to know how he was made.” The simile conveys his low regard for himself, ever penitent, ever sinning. Yet he has been showing an increasingly moral and humane character. He offers a ride to a cold pedestrian and gives him his own jacket: “Some Jews aren’t human beings, but all human beings are Jews.”  That jacket enables Broide to escape his own identity. When he survives his stalled car’s ramming by a train, the stranger is reported to be the dead Broide. 
Again the question of human agency arises. Did God inflict the fatal crash on Broide to punish his licentiousness with Anna? But save him because of his kindness to the stranger? Or was it all just another case of human impulses and unintended consequences? Until Judgment Day the jury is out.  
That day comes soon enough, in the dream during Broide’s six-month coma. It recalls Shulem’s dream of the Day of Judgment in Shtisel and similarly provides the character’s renewal of spirit, a rebirth. As in that drama, the writers makes the metaphysical world as “real” as the normal waking life. 
As the various people wait to be judged by the Heavenly Court, Broide is surprised to meet the esteemed Rebbe, still waiting to be judged. But now he is wholly uncertain of his fate: “I don’t know if I fixed more than I broke or if I broke more than I fixed.” As he advises Broide, with the Almighty “Even when you intend to do His will He may see it differently.” He seems to acknowledge his earlier sophistry when he claimed God required Broide to kidnap Gonnie. Now the Rebbe asks Broide to intercede, to sing “Peace Unto You” for him. He even asks for Broide’s forgiveness. 
After Broide recovers consciousness in a Ukraine hospital he returns to Jerusalem. There, from the security of his taxi, he sees a fragment of his funeral poster on the wall, then Bluma, with her new husband, two of their children and a new infant. Broide asks the cabbie to drive away, anywhere. 
Assured that his family is secure and whole, bereft of his Anna, the man who was torn between the orthodox and the secular life finds he cannot escape the trauma he experienced at nine. As he lost his father in the riot that gave birth to the Autonomy, he awakens into another yeshiva riot militantly protesting its end. To avoid joining the army they wage war against the Israeli military.
He leaves his cane, takes a black suit jacket and hat and picks up two molotov cocktails. We think he will join the throwers. Indeed the television news reports that he set fire to himself to protest the annexation. 
To the contrary, however, Broide seems rather to emulate the Buddhist monks’ self-immolation in protest against the Vietnam war. As in the parallel Shtisel episode, the Judgment Day experience transcends religious distinctions. Broide was never dutifully orthodox and he was always haunted by the human costs of the campaign for autonomy. Indeed his personal autonomy has been the drama’s primary victim of the Autonomy’s war against the State. In his final and fatal act Yoni Broide at last performs what he takes to be God’s will — not to fight either the unifiers or the rebels but to sacrifice himself in protest against their war. In self-immolation he finally asserts his own will. 
        Broide's climactic atonement for his father's death and his own loss of moral will contrasts to the Rebbe's sophistical claim to having wanted to atone for the first yeshiva deaths, but coheres with the young nurse's finally confessing to her baby switch in the nursery, when she switched the baby she killed for the more newly-born one, that might have prevented suspicion. 
But Broide’s truth is buried in the news, in the public presentation of the event. As a reminder that the drama’s war continues, the same news broadcast promises an upcoming report on the mass exodus of Autonomy Jews to revive the old settlement in historic Kreinitz. There the rural barkeep watches that news, soured at the prospect of more Jews to best him at chess. 
Not that he has anything against Jews.   


The author's episode-by-episode analysis, Reading Shtisel, is available from lulu.com and amazon.com, now in a second, expanded edition.

     
     
   






 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Flawless

The Israeli screenwriting and directing team of Tal Granit and her male partner Sharon Maymon have a clear line in compassion. In their The Farewell Party (2014) residents in a seniors home develop a self-euthanasia machine to enable the dignified shaking off of their mortal coil. The sombre plot flew on humour and good nature. 
Flawless (the title accurately describes it) opens like an Israeli Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Clever high school girls snap and crackle at each other. They obsess over their body image and looming Prom Night which, by the way, calls for much more theatrical date-making than we’ve experienced. Riding a white horse into gym? (I just phoned Dena one night, daring to piss off my besotted pal Elliot. Full disclosure: they wed, live happily ever after and Elliot says he forgives.) The melodramatic dating ploys balance off the central characters’ heightened anxieties. 
Our first pleasure is this glimpse into Israel’s version of the North-American teen subculture. Self-consciousness unites us all. As do pecking orders. We quickly attach to the flat Mika and the nose-conscious Keshet, until the willowy blonde Eden wafts by, a stunning enigma.
Eden takes over the atmosphere. Far from her paradisal name, she is a woman born in a man’s body, compelled to conceal her nature and apparently barred from intimacy. She’s played superbly by the Israeli tran actress/model Strav Strashko. 
Eden’s father supports her as best he can. But he can’t bring himself to give her any irreversible treatment, such as a breast implant, lest her identity prove “just a phase.” For that she follows her two new friends’ compulsion. The three sneak off to the Ukraine where they would each provide a kidney transplant to get their respective nose and boob jobs. 
Keshet’s post-op collapse exposes their project.  They become centers of disdainful attention, especially the exposed Eden. Nor do their new bodies avail them. Mika’s boyfriend dumps her. She and Keshet both turn against Eden when they learn her secret, angry she (in their view) lied. So does Itay, the class scapegoat, still bitter that she declined his prom date. 
Eventually Eden gets her human due. Her father realizes his late wife’s prediction: “It’s a phase — but you’ll get over it.” Even Itay relents. With a new courage he saves her from a physical attack by the boys who have been brutalizing him. Ripping off their ski-masks the victims can now identify their assailants — but discreetly decline to prosecute. The title points to the heroine’s nature independent of her physical incongruity.
  With two close girlfriends and her Itay Eden is at last at peace wth herself and her social circle. She declines her father’s offer to move yet again to escape her unjust shaming.
  Unlike most Israeli films that cross the pond, this one would seem to be free of the nation’s political concerns. And yet…. It’s troubling to see their high-schoolers as cruel to each other and as bigoted as our gland-cases are. But no other nation in the region would dare make a film with this compassion and this embrace of the gender spectrum.  

 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Luce

This is an astonishingly challenging, literate, open-ended drama — quite rare for the American screen. The plot centers on the struggle between a liberal black high school Government teacher, Harriet Wilson, and Luce, a black Eritrean chiid soldier raised into a model student by his white middle-class white foster parents, Amy and Peter Edgar. 
But the film’s broader arena is the vulnerability of liberal values to self-deception and to amoral guile. The Left can be played as simply as the Right (US election, anyone?). It’s also how idealists on the Left turn into Lenin’s “useful idiots.”  Their emotional ideals blind them to the contradictory, harsh reality.  
Consider the narrative frame. The first shot is of a high school locker, a private space within the public, where even dangerous secrets can be stashed, and where an innocent may — or may not — be framed.  In a debating club prep Luce and Wilson debate the degree of privacy and civil rights allowed a high school student. 
In the last shot, hero Luce is running full-speed at us, a force of strength and rage, all traces of civility and decorum sunk in his visceral rush. If race is the theme he’s winning his race without his teammates and without an opponent. As he’s not running against anyone he’s running against everything.
  That last shot follows his speech in the high school auditorium, where he projects his smiling Model Citizen persona, an Uncle Tom ruling the plantation. 
But we’ve seen the contradictory truth. We’ve seen him carry on a secret affair with a vulnerable Asian girl Stephanie, set off a fireworks explosion at that teacher’s desk and indeed ruin her career by mobilizing his girl-friend and his foster mother to lie against her. He also appears likely to have defaced the teacher’s window with a racist slur and brought her troubled daughter to the school for a disastrous meltdown.
     Why the family name Edgar? In King Lear he’s the blind Gloucester’s legitimate, honest son, whom the illegitimate and vile Edmund abuses and betrays to his own advantage. The family changed their adopted son’s name to Luce (“light”) but thy couldn’t convert him from the dark, closed, dishonest and cunning Edmund into an open Edgar. They are made vulnerable by their own blind virtue.
     And why is it set in Arlington, Virginia? That's where America has buried its military heroes since the Civil War. The old ideals are here implicitly eulogized.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Synonyms

Israeli writer/director Nadav Lapid makes tough stories about obsessives: The Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher and now Synonyms. The latter became Israel’s first winner of the Golden Lion as Best Feature at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. 
The film centers on a compelling example of the traumatic effect Israel’s 70 years of defensive war has had on its citizens, its soldiers and their families. 
Hero Yoav is an Israeli who has fled his national home in revulsion. He is the new version of The Wandering Jew. The new model is a strapping virile sabra with a lip-ring. The Jewish homeland has failed him, he contends. There’s a quiet irony here: at a time when Jews find a resurgent antisemitism in France and are fleeing to Israel, our hero flees the homeland to Paris.
Yoav begins anew in an empty Paris flat. A robbery leaves him stripped to Lear’s “bare forked animal.” He is saved from freezing to death by a wealthy industrialist’s son Emile and his oboist partner Caroline. Yoav has to rebuild himself anew.
Emile dresses and supports Yoav, eventually arranging for him to marry Caroline and to begin the process of becoming a French citizen. In the citizenship class Yoav sings La Marseillaise with a rebel-to-the-ramparts gusto. But when the students are asked to sing their native anthems he mechanically rushes out the words of Hatikvah, sans music and commitment. His conversion of nationality seems true.
That nearly mortal freeze becomes Yoav’s primary characterization. He tells his new friends his father froze to death in a remote Israeli military post during a blizzard. (The father appears later, hoping to bring his son back home. He leaves assured he can tell Yoav’s mother he has seen their son and he is alright.) Yoav tells Emile he himself almost froze to death when he got lost in a blizzard at that same outpost. 
That freeze of course is a metaphor for the frozen heart, the coldness that characterizes someone who has lost empathy for others. For Lapid as for many thinkers on the Israeli Left, Israel’s constant struggle to survive has turned her callous, cruel, harsh in its treatment of its Muslim citizens and neighbours. Israel’s military has cost the nation its soul, however its root in those neighbours’ determination to destroy the Jewish state.  
Yoav’s hatred of Israel becomes self-loathing. He abases himself by eating the cheapest food he can get from the cheapest supermarket. He sells himself as a “model” to an artist who films him in sexual self-abuse. 
The artist’s partner Yasmine is the film’s one Palestinian. She has settled nicely into the European freedom, living stylishly with the questionable artist, but retaining the bigotry that defines her nationalism: “I can’t talk to you.”   
Yoav finds that imported intransigence among the Jews at his second job, with the security staff at the Israeli embassy. As in the army, his colleagues indulge their power over others. They send away a workman because his helper son didn’t bring his ID. 
Yoav is fired when he wildly lets the entire line-up of immigration applicants  “cross the border” without interview or process, in order to get them out of the rain. This is the humane behaviour that should overrule Israel’s security concerns. (It may work better in Paris than at the Gaza border.) 
Though more orderly than Yoav, his colleagues prove personally worse. One participates in a furtive gang-war with neo-Nazis, flaunting a photo of the wolf-hound he tore apart. Another asserts his Jewishness belligerently, as if daring people to assault him. He aggressively hums Hatikvah in the faces of innocent Metro passengers. There and in the civilized bar, the Parisians deny him any response.
Yoav’s more civilized friend lives idly off his factory and struggles to become a writer. Emile has to drink to overcome his fear of writing. Short on imagination, he uses some of the stories Yoav spins. Yoav first gifts him those tales, then asks for them back when he resolves  to become French. 
One tale is especially fertile in its militarizing of culture. Yoav claims that at his security job interview, one psychological test required he make up a story based on a picture he was shown. Realizing the need for an optimistic front, he decides the boy he sees holding a rifle to his own head decides at the last minute that life is worth living. But what Yoav saw as a rifle and magazine was actually a violin and bow. His calculated optimism betrayed a more profound pessimism. 
This parable extends into his shooting range test. He machine guns a target, then asks the officer to guess what tune he was playing with the firing rhythm, again collapsing music into violence. 
Climactically, Yoav takes his violence into Caroline’s musical world when he goes backstage at her concert and both verbally and physically assaults the musicians. Bad enough he arrived late to the performance, causing the whole row to bob up to admit him. He then shatters his relationship with Caroline by brutishly exercising his French freedom of speech in their green room, taunting them with the freedom questions from his citizenship class. His compulsive intention is its effect — to embarrass his new wife and to shatter his new life.
The film opens on a montage of subjective shots of Yoav’s compulsive movement through the streets of Paris. In the last scene Yoav pounds his body and head against Caroline’s door, in futile attempt to re-enter. The brutishness he thinks he was fleeing in Israel is — like its antithesis, the kingdom of God — within him. The Israeli Yoav and the wouldbe French Yoav are still the same Yoav — synonyms.   
Yoav bought “a light dictionary” peripatetically to expand his French. As he strides through the Paris streets he recites lists of words. They’re synonyms when he lists his Israel’s faults, but otherwise they can be rhymes, free association, random phrases. Their point is incoherence. His inner language expresses his fragmented psyche. 
     The film’s title applies the phenomenon of identicals in language to the larger question of identity in life. In France or in Israel Yoav is Yoav, a Jew, an Israeli, ever on the defence however offensive he may act. This brutalizing is a tragic consequence of the nation’s constant need to defend herself against annihilation.