The word "honor" (kavod in Hebrew) comes up a lot in conversation with Ze'ev Revach - and not just because it's the title of the new film he is starring in, which recently opened in movie theaters around the country. During our first meeting at a cafe in Ramat Gan, where he has lived for many years now, two likable young men approach us. One of them addresses Revach with a great deal of respect (another meaning of kavod), tells the actor that he was his childhood hero and asks to have his picture taken with him. Revach grants the request with his characteristic warmth, puts his arm around the young man's shoulders and suggests that his friend also have his picture taken with him.
At the end of the meeting, a woman stops Revach as we're leaving the cafe. She tells him about how she immigrated to Israel from Kazakhstan, and goes on at length in praise of this country. Revach stands there patiently, listening to her story.
A few days later we meet at the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where workers are unloading piles of books. Some of them come up to Revach smiling broadly, hoping to shake his hand. He is their "Ze'evik," a star and a friend, who is a symbol of something I am trying to decipher - apparently immigration, absorption, Israeliness. There is a social, cultural and national consensus that seems to tie all of Revach's films together, but that also moves beyond them.
In "Honor," the new film written and directed by Haim Bouzaglo, Revach, who was born in 1940, plays Leon Marziano, the head of a crime family. The Marzianos are fighting a rival family, the Bardugos, whose leader is played by Amos Lavi. Revach says that after Bouzaglo handed him the script, he read it quickly (he reads at a tremendous speed - a skill he has retained since his days studying at a yeshiva) and immediately agreed to appear in the film. When Bouzaglo asked him why, he replied: "Because I'm a Moroccan, and unfortunately there are Moroccan families like this."
However the movie, continues Revach, also hints at what motivates certain Moroccan families to choose the path of crime. "What's beautiful about the character I play," he says, "is that despite his importance, he is a lot less violent than most of the other characters. He wants to break the cycle of violence in which his family is entangled, and the only way to do this is through sacrifice. The connection between family and sacrifice makes the film very Israeli in my opinion."
Do these families choose crime because of distress?
Revach: "Not distress, but rather insult. That's why the film is entitled 'Honor.' There wasn't a feeling like that in my family, but I still understand it. My father was a teacher at the Alliance School in Morocco and we came to Israel when I was 8 years old. He had excellent Hebrew and back in Morocco he had written books about Hebrew grammar. At our home there he did not allow us to speak Arabic - only Hebrew and French - so I already knew the language when I arrived in Israel. We spoke Hebrew better than any sabras.
"My father had also been to Israel several times before we immigrated; he would come from Marseille with his students who enlisted through the Betar organization. But my father was a compromiser. The fact is, he named me Ze'ev Nachum Revach - Ze'ev after [Revisionist leader] Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Nachum after [Zionist journalist] Nahum Sokolow, who were supposedly on opposing sides. In this respect, I learned a lot from my father. Maybe even subconsciously.
"Politically, I'm a Herutnik [referring to Herut, a Revisionist party, currently incarnated in Likud], because I am committed to the name my father gave me, Jabotinsky's name - but today it isn't what it used to be. When it comes to elections, it often happens that I deviate from my name. I admire [left-wing maverick Arye] Lova Eliav and I admired [late Labor politician and Histadrut leader] Yitzhak Ben-Aharon.
"Despite the difficulties he experienced here, my father remained an incurable optimist all his life. I had amazing parents. My mother, who devoted her whole life to her husband and children, went to study sociology at the Hebrew University at the age of 70, and she got amazing grades."
Revach says that his parents' decision to immigrate from North Africa stemmed from religious faith and great Zionism. They considered Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion to be emissaries of the Messiah; they regarded themselves as the last generation before the Redemption.
Reaching the periphery
You have said in the past that you aimed the "bourekas" films - comic melodramas made in the 1960s and 1970s - at the country's periphery. What did you mean by this?
"It killed me that theater didn't come to the outlying areas of the country in those years. The critics generally praised my work when I appeared in theater productions, but I wanted to reach the whole country - to reach the periphery, which I feel closer to. It is possible to reach the periphery with versions of [Federico Garcia] Lorca and [Marcel] Pagnol, but those plays didn't get there. We produced those [bourekas] films mainly for the periphery and the encounter with my own ethnic group made me very happy."
How did you react to the attacks on those films? Some critics said they were destroying the culture that was in the process of being developed here.
"It's a lie to say bad reviews don't hurt. I very much enjoyed playing the role of Haham Hanukkah [in the movie 'Hagiga B'Snooker' ('Party at the Pool Hall')] for example, and making the guys laugh. I enjoyed it when the film crew and [producer and director] Yehuda Barkan would double over with laughter, but I always knew those films were silly. Directing my own films was different from 'Charlie and a Half' and 'Snooker.'"
"In the first film I directed, 'Rak Hayom' ['Only Today'] there were ethnic groups, but they weren't the main thing. Love of mankind was. The film was set in Jerusalem and a large part of it took place in Mahaneh Yehuda. We couldn't film in the shuk itself, so instead we filmed in the Armenian Quarter. I'd been familiar with the market since childhood. I used to go there with my mother. She knew every seller and she'd say we'll buy the tomatoes from this one, the cucumbers from that one and that way we'll save a bit of money. She was always calculating things. Everyone respected her because they knew who she was and who my father was. I wanted the film to be a kind of tribute to the inhabitants of the shuk in Jerusalem."
How did you actually start directing?
"I started out in editing. I worked with Alain Jakubowicz and Dov Hoenig [two veteran editors of Israeli cinema]. Those are the two people who influenced me the most. When I started directing, I wanted to free myself from dependence on the cameraman, the lighting man and the editor, and so I devoted a year to studying those professions. Because I draw, I drew every frame of 'Only Today' before I began directing it. That's how I do it to this day. I know exactly how I want the frame to look and what lens I will use to film it. I wanted to direct because I wanted to tell my story in my own way. With all the love I have for [producer and director] Boaz Davidson, for example, I've always seen things a little bit differently, especially when it comes to showing relationships between the characters."
Did you see things differently because Davidson and others involved in producing those comedies were Ashkenazim [of Eastern European descent] and you are Mizrahi [of Middle Eastern descent]?
"No," Revach replies quickly, as he always does with any question related to the ethnic aspect of films on which he has worked. "I came from the theater, and the theater doesn't let you play a character before you've researched him and researched what the playwright wanted to say. I studied at Beit Zvi [acting school in Ramat Gan] and I had wonderful teachers like Dov Ber Malkin, Noa Eshkol and Haim Gamzu - who despite being a difficult person, was gentle with the students. I came to those films with a completely different background from Boaz, for example. When I wrote the script for 'Only Today,' I decided I wanted to do the film my own way, and using my own skills."
Which films did you like to watch when you were young?
"I went to the movies a lot in Jerusalem. I mostly liked Italian and French films. American cinema attracted me a lot less. I liked the films of Vittorio de Sica, and Italian comedies like 'Big Deal on Madonna Street' with Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi and Nino Manfredi, and Rene Clement's 'Gervaise' had a great influence on me. Maria Schell, a great actress, performed in it."
You have acted in many films and directed many films, but it seems your greatest love is for the theater.
"The cinema can do wonderful things, but it can never achieve the power of an actor standing on a stage with a spotlight shining on him as he delivers his lines. Still, I love making films, having the ability to tell a story in pictures."
Looking at the films you've directed, I see a desire to make more serious films that touch directly on the Israeli experience - like "Little Shraga," "On the Fringe" or "Batito Is Unemployed."
"Only when I was able to, because money has always been a major factor in my career."
The test of time
When I try to clarify whether Revach relates to these films as more personal than others he has directed, such as "Wrong Number" or "Sweet and Sour," all he will say in reply is that of all his films, "On the Fringe," which is based on a play by Hillel Mittelpunkt (as was "Little Shraga" before it) is his favorite. And when I ask Revach about the essence of his films, he prefers to talk about the way he makes them.
How can he explain the staying power of the comedies in which he has appeared?
In his opinion, their durability stems from the fact that he portrayed a reality that the Israeli audience was already familiar with, and thus the inhabitants of disadvantaged neighborhoods around the country were able to connect to these films.
"They are durable because they are simple and funny," he explains. "My job as an actor - in the theater, in film, in a drama or a comedy - is to serve the audience, and I use the word 'serve' intentionally. If I hadn't made 'Charlie and a Half' and 'Snooker,' the audience would not have come to see me in 'Little Shraga' and 'On the Fringe.' And if I hadn't appeared in those films, people would not have come to see me in the theater."
Ephraim Kishon's character of Sallah Shabati is identified today with two actors, the Ashkenazi Chaim Topol who played him in 1964 in Kishon's eponymous film, and the Mizrahi Ze'ev Revach, who took on the character in the musical version first produced at Habima in 1988.
"When Kishon brought me the text of the musical," recalls Revach, "he in fact brought me the text of the film. I said to him, what you're depicting here isn't correct. It isn't correct that when we came to this country we immediately started to complain. I told him about my father, about the feeling of redemption that accompanied our arrival in Israel.
"And then along came Haim Hefer, who wrote the words for the songs in the musical. He heard my stories and wrote the song 'God How Happy I Am, the Time of the Redeemer Has Come.' Suddenly 'Sallah Shabati' became something completely different, because Kishon hadn't been aware of that aspect. He hadn't known how we felt when we came to Israel. The film and the play can be seen as two complete extremes: Topol was an Ashkenazi sabra and I wasn't. And Kishon was an outsider his whole life, and I wasn't.
"Apart from that, Kishon was an atheist. He didn't have any faith when he made the film and therefore couldn't depict the world the way it really was. He didn't understand that people arrived in this country after they'd been saying 'Next year in Jerusalem' all their lives.
"I relate to the theatrical production of 'Sallah Shabati' as a correction to Kishon's film. Of course many mistakes were made in the absorption of the Mizrahim. The main mistake was that they were treated without respect, but the way Kishon depicted this in the film and immediately cried 'racism!' was not correct. When I performed in 'Sallah Shabati' I felt I was providing closure by offering a lot of forgiveness for many of the injustices done to us. Kishon changed a lot thanks to the work on the musical. Maybe he heard us - Go know."
'A real sabra!'
After Revach completed his audition piece for entry into Beit Zvi, Haim Gamzu from the examining committee stood up and said: "Now this is a real sabra!" Revach kept quiet. He stopped himself from telling Gamzu he was the opposite of a real sabra: He wasn't born in this country and he lived in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem.
"I didn't say anything because I was afraid," says Revach. "To this day it annoys me that I was afraid to tell him I wasn't a sabra, because I didn't know how he would react. It's true that when I came to this country, I wanted more than anything else to be a sabra, but I have always been proud of my culture and I have underlined that every time I've been interviewed ever since I began acting.
"After my mother passed away, I directed a film about Moroccan Jewry. This was a religious, traditional film, about all the great rabbis who were also leaders of the community. Not only did I not make any money from that film, I actually lost money on it - but making it gave me great comfort at the time, while I was mourning the loss of my mother.
"My father wrote plays for his students on biblical subjects and my mother performed in them. He was very talented, but all his life he was busy struggling to earn a living. He never saw me perform any role, neither in the theater nor in a film, until [the politician] David Levy, who had been a student of his, brought him to see me in 'Sallah Shabati.' That was the first time he saw me act."
Why hadn't your father ever gone to see you in a play or film before that?
"Because I was one of his greatest disappointments. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps, to go into the rabbinate, to become a rabbi and a teacher. It saddened him that I had tempted myself into becoming an actor. I am sorry I hurt my father, but I am not sorry about anything else, because I have served my people in my own way."
Revach notes that even after he came to see the play, his father never commented on his acting skills, but instead spoke solely about the character he played. He liked it that Sallah did not complain.
"I told him I had learned that from him, from the way he conducted himself in the transit camp," says Revach. "He liked it that I played the character in that way, but as relates to honor, my father told me, mistakes were made. That reaction was one of the reasons I agreed to appear in Bouzaglo's film. This is a part of the Mizrahi immigration experience that I haven't dealt with yet. The film also gives voice to a person from North Africa."