'Up the Wrong Tree' Gets It Right

A man wants to get back together with his former girlfriend and a plot of land is slated to become a parking lot. Between the tangible and the symbolic and between the personal and the public, Gur Bentvich’s new film puts him among the top Israeli directors.

“Up the Wrong Tree,” the third full-length feature film from screenwriter and director Gur Bentvich, is characterized by the same free flow that marked his previous two films, “Planet Blue” (1995) and “Total Love” (2000). At the core of this film, which at first glance seems light and amusing, beats a heavy heart, one that is connected to issues of personal and public responsibility and commitment. It is from this combination, one that is perilously difficult for directors to achieve, that the film earns its value and validity.

Nitzan, known as Nitz (Gal Toren), returns to Israel from Australia and tries to get back his girlfriend, Kesem (Sarah Adler), whom he had abandoned. Along with Kesem he also wants to get back Zorba, their aged dog that they once shared.

Over time, we get the feeling that Nitz, who is quite a manipulator, is using his demonstrations of love for the dog to get himself back into Kesem’s life. She refuses to let him but she does allow him to have a relationship with Zorba, a kind of child who has found himself in the middle of a quarrel between his separated parents.

While Nitz’s attitude towards Zorba could be defined as love, his attitude toward Kesem borders on obsession. In this respect, the plot connects to previous films, from Karel Reisz’s “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” to David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” in which men use eccentric tactics to get back a woman they left or who left them.

The plot and the lot

Bentvich leaves the origins of Nitz’s obsession vague, a move that contributes to the film. Helped by Toren’s skilled performance, in Nitz Bentvich has created a complex male character. He is childish and egocentric and at the same time there is a certain charm about him, making viewers simultaneously repulsed, attracted and sympathetic toward him.

Bentvich entwines his story with a second one, set mainly in the neglected empty lot across from Kesem's building. Nitz installs himself in the lot just as plans are being developed to turn it into a parking lot. At the center of the lot stands an ancient tree, which despite its thick trunk and spreading branches also seems to be rather damaged.

The combination of the tangible and the symbolic, of course, is right there in title of the film, which relates both to a real incident in the movie and also Nitz's refusal to come down from his idiomatic perch. It represents his struggle to separate from his egocentric childhood and to make the long climb down toward learning what responsibility and commitment are.

At first, Nitz refuses to join the protest because he is focused on his personal goal, not the public one surrounding him. But the longer he stays on the plot of land, the more involved he becomes.

Two significant characters are involved in the protest story: a neighbor woman who believes in tikkun (the Jewish idea of repair) and transmigration of souls, played with great charm by the director’s sister Talya Fishman, and a blogger called Teddy, who documents the protest with her video camera and is played by Bentvich’s life partner Maya Kenig. Kenig also edited the film and in 2011 directed her first film, “Off-White Lies,” in which Bentvich played the leading role and displayed considerable talent as a film actor.

At the center of “Up the Wrong Tree” is the character of Kesem, well played, as always, by Adler. She brings a pinch of sanity to the hallucinatory reality and shapes the severity that beats throughout the film. Bentvich spices the two parallel and intertwining stories with dashes of Israeli folklore but uses these wisely, in just the proper dosage, to keep them from overpowering. As in his previous films, he proves his ability to pen dialogue in his own unique style that also flows with a captivating Israeli authenticity.

The protest, of course, brings to mind the social protest that erupted in Israel in the summer of 2011. It includes a number of the clear symbols of that protest, such as a tent pitched in the middle of the plot of land, which is demolished by representatives of the municipality.

If you so desire, you can identify statements here, perhaps even ironic statements, about that sweeping protest and its questionable results. But you don't need to in order to appreciate the film’s achievements, which derive mainly from its success in giving both the personal story and the public story depicted in it allegorical and symbolic value.

Maybe a little faster, please

Nitz’s desperate desire to repair his relationship with Kesem is an image for the equally desperate desire for social justice. This desire reflects on Nitz’s attempts to renew his relationship with Kesem, weaving together the personal and the public and consolidating them into a single whole. Here Israeli society, in which the individual and the collective are pitted together, is summed up.

Bentvich's direction is straight and humble. His use of various screenwriting tricks, such as the occasional flashback or switch in viewpoint, are skillfully executed.

In an interview with Nirit Anderman published in Haaretz last week, Bentvich said that even though he does not intend to wait another 13 years before directing his next film, he does not understand the point of rushing from one film to the next.

Maybe there is no need to rush, certainly not at the expense of the result. But “Up the Wrong Tree,” for the first time in his career, has pushed Bentvich to the top ranks of Israeli film directors. It has aroused in me more enthusiasm and appreciation than many of the films produced recently in Israel. I am already itching to see his next film.

“Up the Wrong Tree.” Screenplay and directing: Gur Bentvich; cinematography: Sharone Meir; editing Maya Kenig; cast: Gal Toren, Sarah Adler, Maya Kenig, Doron Tsabari, Gur Bentvich, Zohar Dinnar, Talya Bentvich, Nathan Brand

Kobi Kalmanovitz