The Least Well-known Star of Israeli Cinema

Now starring in two new movies, Alon Aboutboul is a distinctive presence in the Israeli landscape. So why hasn’t he become a cinematic institution like Moshe Ivgy?

For three decades, the actor Alon Aboutboul has been one of the mainstays of the Israeli film industry. Since the beginning of the 1980s, hardly a year has gone by in which he hasn’t appeared in a lead or supporting role in a local film. At present he can be seen in two films: In Yossi Madmoni’s “A Place in Heaven,” he plays a renowned Israeli army officer across the 50 years of his multifaceted life; and in “She’s Coming Home,” directed by Maya Dreifuss, he's a school principal with whom a troubled film director conducts a complicated affair. Aboutboul does his usual good work in both movies.

Aboutboul’s credits include some of the best-known films in the history of Israeli cinema. Among them are Amos Guttman’s “Bar 51,” Eli Cohen’s “Two Fingers from Sidon,” Assi Dayan and Tal Ron’s “Photo Roman,” Uri Barabash’s “One of Us,” Shemi Zarhin’s “Passover Fever,” Gur Bentwich’s “Planet Blue,” Oded Davidoff’s “Clean Sweep,” Savi Gavison’s “Nina’s Tragedies” (in which, unusually, his part had a comic dimension and for which he won an Ophir – the Israeli Oscar – for best supporting actor), Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort,” Ayelet Menahemi’s “Noodle,” and “Shiva,” directed by the siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz.

He also appeared in films that are less well remembered but no less interesting for that, including Isaac Zepel Yeshurun’s “Prom Queen,” Yehuda "Judd" Ne’eman’s “Streets of Yesterday” and Yigal Burstein’s “Hand of God.” Aboutboul’s filmography also includes some forgotten films – most justly consigned to oblivion – such as Amnon Rubinstein’s “The Heritage,” Agur Schiff’s “Gentila” and Marek Rozenbaum’s “The Belly Dancer.” International audiences saw him two years ago playing a secondary role in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Yet despite the long list of films, Aboutboul has not become a local cinematic institution like Moshe Ivgy, whose career began at the same time (both made their film debuts in 1980 with small roles in “Morning Star,” the only film directed by Akiva Barkin). One byproduct of this is that no one made jokes at Aboutboul’s expense, as they did about Ivgy at a certain point in his career, when it was said there seemed to be no Israeli movie in which he was not the star.

In contrast to Ivgy, Aboutboul’s list of credits does not contain benchmark films that have left an indelible imprint on the collective memory of Israeli cinema, such as “Shuroo” and “Lovesick on Nana Street” (both directed by Savi Gavison). Nor is there anything in Aboutboul’s filmography to match “Late Marriage” (2001), by Dover Koshashvili, which propelled the film career of Lior Ashkenazi; or “The Band’s Visit” (2007), by Eran Kolirin, which consolidated the status of Sasson Gabai as a popular movie star.

In comparison, Aboutboul’s local film career seems to be more moderate. It has been developing for three decades at the center of Israeli cinema, but that center gives the impression of being more indistinct than that inhabited by his colleagues, even if in certain cases their body of work is shorter and not as rich as his.

Degree of ambivalence

This, though, does not make Aboutboul a less interesting actor than the others, and his contribution to local cinema is no smaller than theirs. It’s true that there is something a bit monotonic in his screen appearances: When we go to see a movie in which he’s the star, we know what to expect. He’s not one of those actors who change their identity from one film to the next. Almost the only change we discern in him is his maturation before our eyes from youth to man – now a man on the brink of middle age – and this shift, too, is occurring with gentle gradualness, almost by insinuation, without etching dramatic marks in Aboutboul’s cinematic image and presence.

This is, in fact, one of Aboutboul’s distinguishing characteristics on the screen. More than any other Israeli actor of his standing, he projects a degree of ambivalence. Indeed, even the passage of time is ambivalent in his case. This ambivalence is related to his appearance – he is attractive, but that attractiveness is sometimes disguised; to his ethnic origin, which in many of his films seems to be disconnected from any specific place; and to the way he expresses emotion in his screen appearances, which sometimes seems restrained to the point of being alienated.

In many of his films, even when he plays a romantic character, Aboutboul does not claim our sympathy. His screen presence is powerful, and the characters he portrays are shaped with proficient precision. Yet he also projects a certain remoteness, which sometimes seems to possess a measure of arrogance, while in other cases it translates into a type of human weakness.

It’s because of that ambivalence that Aboutboul is capable of creating on-screen a very different portrait of Israeli masculinity than most of his colleagues. When he plays an Israeli army man (as he has in several films), or the romantic and even elegant object of an Israeli woman, the cumulative character projects toughness, vulnerability and also coldness. From this point of view, he has made a distinctive and significant contribution to the representation of patriarchality in Israeli cinema.

That quality is preeminent in the two films in which he is currently starring, notably “A Place in Heaven,” which is itself problematic in terms of the indeterminate human and moral approach it takes toward its protagonists and is rife with conflicts and contradictions. One’s feeling is that director Madmoni doesn’t have a clue about what to do with the hero of his film – who’s nicknamed “Bambi” – or how to present him, but the ambivalence that is inherent in the screen personality of the actor who plays him helps unify Bambi’s disparate elements, giving rise to a cinematic protagonist whose existence we can believe in, one who becomes a character of coherent composition.

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The question of time’s passage arises again in “A Place in Heaven,” because the hero of the film ages 50 years through it, but the way Aboutboul shapes Bambi’s aging presents the passing of the years more as an idea than an actual transfiguration. The result is, therefore, more suggestive than if we were shown this change in a real, direct form.

I have only mentioned one of Aboutboul’s many screen roles outside Israel. Besides “The Dark Knight Rises,” these include “”Rambo III,” “Munich” and “Body of Lies” (as well as guest appearances on successful television series such as “Law and Order,” “The Mentalist” and “Homeland”). I view this as a marginal aspect of his career (even if the success it betokens is estimable).

Nor have I mentioned his work in Israeli television, which interconnects with his screen appearances. It’s his place in the history of Israeli cinema over the past three decades that interests me. It sometimes seems that we take Aboutboul’s presence in Israeli movies for granted. It’s time to admit that there’s more on offer here than that.

Ran Mendelson
Shai Peleg