Haifa Film Festival / Seeing the Big Picture

A look back at a film fest featuring debuts, adaptations and less-than-noteworthy efforts. Still the event was an affirmation of what Israeli cinema can achieve.

Prizes were awarded to five of the seven Israeli feature films competing in the 26th Haifa International Film Festival, which ended Saturday night. Of the three best, two deal with family relationships: Guy Nattiv's "The Flood" (best picture and best cinematography by Philip Levant ) and Alon Zingman's "Dusk" (best debut feature ). I prefer Zingman's, but this is a matter of nuance - both films are admirable works.

In some senses "The Flood" is also a debut work, as it's the first film Nattiv has directed on his own. His previous full-length feature, "Strangers," was directed with Erez Tadmor, as were the two preceding shorts. But since Nattiv has been involved with a full-length production, his film was not included in the first-film category, which contained Eitan Tzur's "Naomi" and Dani Menkin's "Je t'aime I Love You Terminal," both of which were disappointments.

Scene from the film 'Dusk'

"The Flood" tells of a family in a small farm community near the sea whose fragile structure is further undermined by the return of the oldest, autistic son, Tomer, who had been institutionalized. Using a mentally impaired character in film is always a risk; to Nattiv's credit (he wrote the screenplay with Noa Berman-Herzberg ), he employs the character of Tomer (Michael Moshonov ) without the sense of exploitation that accompanies such figures in many films.

Here and there, the film suffers from being formulaic, especially in the portrayal of the father and mother (Tzahi Grad and Ronit Elkabetz ) and some other characters in supporting roles. However, the movie contains several lovely as well as extremely powerful scenes. And it has one other great virtue - Yoav Rotman as Yoni, Tomer's younger brother.

Tomer's return further complicates life for Yoni while he unenthusiastically prepares for his bar mitzvah. Rotman demonstrates the skill of an experienced actor, shifting between fury held in check and expressed compassion. His presence sets the entire film going and sweeps viewers into its world so they identify with its human life. Nattiv's direction is at times overly expressionistic, but Rotman's performance grants the viewing experience great scope.

Kudos to Zingman

"Dusk" is to some extent more like a director's first effort than "The Flood," and its screenplay creaks more. But it is more daring in its story line and emotions, qualities that make up for these weaknesses and made it (I feel ) the best film in the Haifa festival competition this year. Like "The Flood," "Dusk" (whose screenplay was written by the director ) is somewhat formulaic, but mostly manages to overcome this, and the script will surprise viewers with its tough and even cruel choices.

Like many recent films, Alon Zingman's story follows a few characters whose fates cross as a result of one incident. Here, it's a hit-and-run accident. (Some will claim the movie evinces excessive influence from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, whose "21 Grams" and "Love Bites" also follow characters after car accidents, but that would be petty in view of the Israeli film's virtues. )

The main force of Zingman's film lies in the fact that through these stories he deals with a moral question: the responsibility of parents to their children and human responsibility in general. A sense of gravity pervades the film and saves it from the trap of sentimentality and makes it a debut work of stunning promise.

The other good film in competition, "The Human Resources Manager" by Eran Riklis, received the prize for best actor for its star, Mark Ivanir. It is based on the novel by A.B. Yehoshua and reaches movie theaters here at the end of this week and will provoke much reaction. In the main, it represents skillfully produced, popular filmmaking. He succeeded in making me feel very involved in the plot and the characters portrayed.

Amateurish effort

The four additional films in competition ranged from trivial to misguided to confused to off-putting. "Je T'aime I Love You Terminal," Dani Menkin's first full-length feature (he also directed the documentary "39 Pounds of love" ) suffers from excessive charm and amateurish directing and collapses due to bad scripting decisions. If Alon Zingman's film recalls the films by Inarritu and Arriaga, and "Naomi" appears influenced to an unbelievable extent by Claude Chabrol's 1969 masterpiece "Que La Bete Meure" (and also by Adrian Lyne's 1992 "Unfaithful," inspired by Chabrol's film ), Menkin's movie recalls a pair by Richard Linkletter, "Before Sunset," and "After Sunrise," but without their charm and profundity. Dani Niv, best known as "Muki, portrays 30-year-old Ben, who supposedly has no idea what to do with himself (the hows or whys are never made clear ) and impulsively proposes marriage to an American he meets in Israel and impulsively decides to go to New York to be with her. The flight stops in Prague, he misses his connecting flight and is forced to spend a day in the Czech capital. On the flight he meets Emma (Nerona de Masado Kaplan ), a charming but confused young British woman, and they spend the day together. The plot development is banal - the two visit an amusement park, a disco and, in the film's biggest missed opportunity, Ben's aunt, who unbelievably lives in Prague. Menkin tries for a measure of bittersweet maturity but this just shows how very immature and superficial the film really is.

Eitan Tzur's "Naomi" is scripted by Edna Mazya, who adapted her book. It attempts to create a local psychological thriller, but character development is deficient, and the story never adds up to a drama with enough material in terms of ideas and emotions. Ilan Ben-Natan (Yossi Pollak ), an admired professor of astrophysics, is in love to the point of obsession with Naomi (Melanie Peres ), his much younger wife. He discovers she has a lover (Rami Heuberger ). What happens is what anyone knows who has seen the films by Chabrol and Lyne.

While in the works by Chabrol and Lyne, the husband's act influences the woman, the character of Naomi in Tzur and Mazya's film is a blank page, and so, in effect, there is no dramatic significance to his deed. Secondly, Tzur and Mazya insert the character of Ilan's elderly mother to add macabre and even cruel humor. It simply does not work. Orna Porat as the mother was won the festival's best actress prize, perhaps because Israeli cinema does not make enough use of this wonderful actress.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Haim Buzaglo's first features, "Fictitious Marriage," one of the best films ever produced here, and "Cherry Season," which contains many impressive scenes, as well as "Scar," which was problematic but interesting. Since then, most of Buzaglo's films have been disappointing, and even the most successful of them do not equal the earlier ones. His new film, "Blank Bullet," competed in the festival; it is one of his weakest - sloppy and confusing to the point of embarrassment. Buzaglo, who earlier on dealt with Israeli political life, sets the movie (screenplay by David Ackerman ) in 2004, a short time before the disengagement from Gaza. The story is about attempts by the Shin Bet security services, headed by Amos Shnir (portrayed by Amos Lavi ), to prevent the assassination of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon at a Yad Vashem ceremony on Holocaust Memorial Day. There's a list of suspects, and during the film, as in an Agatha Christie story, we are supposed to feel tension about who is the potential assassin. However, the list is so artificial, and the solution so unbelievable, the outcome borders on the ridiculous. More than anything else, the film arouses a sense of exploiting a real problem at the heart of Israeli society for weak dramatic purposes. It also arouses genuine concern about how the Shin Bet operates; if it works as represented in the movie, we are in serious trouble.

At the bottom of the heap is "Nika," a new film by Arnon Zadok, with a script by Avi Amar. While perhaps less disturbing than Zadok's previous one, "Only Dogs Run Free," that's a dubious compliment as that film hit a new low in contemporary Israeli cinema. This new one is distasteful in every way possible, visually and in terms of humanity. It takes place in Ukraine, and not a word of Hebrew is spoken. As in other of Zadok's films (and of his producer, Doron Eran ) it focuses on a large and sensational subject, in this case, trafficking in women. Zadok does not understand that what he does in the film to its young protagonist (Genya Wasserman ), who is kidnapped and held for two weeks in a filthy apartment until the traffickers show up and take her to Western Europe to be used as a prostitute, is not very different from what the men in the film do to her. The other main character is Ivan (Oleg Levin ), who is charged with guarding her for those two weeks. He is psychotic, married and the father of a daughter, and it's not clear whether Nika is really in love with him or just pretends to be so he will save her. Not only is this unclear, it does not really matter, because viewing Arnon Zadok's tendency for sadomasochism is so unpleasant, you just wish the movie was over and erased from memory.

The competition at this year's Haifa film festival, like that a few months ago in Jerusalem, demonstrated once more the broad range of contemporary Israeli cinema and its various levels. If three of the seven films in competition were worth producing and viewing, this says Israeli cinema continues to be a fascinating element in our culture, and each step in its developing story continues to intrigue.