All through Erez Tadmor’s new movie, “Homeport,” I had the feeling that from inside the film I was watching, another, much better picture was trying to emerge. Of Tadmor’s five long features to date, “Homeport” – which he wrote together with Shlomo Efrati – is the second he has directed alone (having collaborated with Guy Nattiv on “Strangers” and “Magic Men,” and made “A Matter of Size” with Sharon Maymon). His previous solo project, “Wounded Land,” has something in common with “Homeport”: Both are about corruption, the former within Israel’s police, the latter at the Ashdod Port.
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I should say right away that despite its many flaws, “Homeport” is a better picture than “Wounded Land.” The latter savored local atrocities too much – the plot involved a terrorist bombing at a Haifa restaurant – and was manipulative and sensational in ways I found off-putting. “Homeport” charts a different path, and I liked it far better. Still, it suffers from some of the same limitations as “Wounded Land”: The screenplay is problematic and the direction, while more restrained this time, does not go beyond the functional.
I respect Tadmor and Efrati’s desire to explore the corruption of the port in Ashdod and even to treat the subject with a certain ambivalence; I respect any Israeli movie that dares to confront local problems head-on. But the screenplay of “Homeport” is superficial, and Tadmor’s direction does not help it overcome this limitation. The movie has levels that might have made it a more complex and satisfying work, but Tadmor and Efrati use these levels in ways that often seem too calculated, keeping them from truly enriching the film. The hero of “Homeport” is Aharon Avitan (Yoram Hattab), who after 30 years as a ship captain decides to establish himself back on dry land, especially in the hope of repairing his relationship with his married daughter, Tali (Liron Ben-Shlush), who has recently had her first child and whose husband also works at the port. Avitan is given a high-ranking position as port manager; his best friend there, a patron of sorts, is Rahamim Azoulai (Shmil Ben Ari), head of the local workers’ union and the de facto boss of the port. He is pleased by Avitan’s appointment, believing it will serve his interests. But Avitan has no intention of compromising the integrity of his job, even at the cost of his longtime friendship with Azoulai, which includes a debt to his friend for helping him and his family when Avitan’s father died.
“Homeport,” in other words, is a kind of morality play that pits a principled hero against a reality of professional anarchy and corruption, and it follows that hero’s struggle to stick to his principles and the price he pays for his moral backbone. We’ve seen many movies centered on a similar kind of conflict, often involving two friends whose years-long closeness turns sour when one of them fails to live up to the other’s expectations. Such a situation is typical of many Westerns, for example, and it does not really seem so far-fetched to connect that genre to the wild, lawless reality of the port on Israel’s western shore. The plot of the film could easily be transferred to a Western town where a new sheriff tries to enforce law and order while opposed by an old friend.
The fact that the plot of “Homeport” is transferrable in this way, however, points to the movie’s limitations. Avitan’s story unfolds through familiar formulas, leading the movie down predictable paths while failing to develop certain plot events and minor characters. Avitan himself is not portrayed in enough depth, beyond the indication of his stubborn conscience. This is in part due to the subplot focused on his attempts at reconciliation with his estranged daughter, who resents his many years of absence. That story line is the movie’s weakest aspect, as what happens between Avitan and Tali is portrayed in a way that fails to generate any substantive drama.
The film’s screenplay fails to give satisfactory expression to Avitan’s moral dilemma, which is thus unable to serve as an effective engine for the plot. As a result, Yoram Hattab’s lead performance suffers from a certain monotony. Azoulai is better developed, but then the morally ambivalent villain is always more interesting than the resolute hero; Ben Ari manages to turn the rather flimsy material given to him by the writers into a visibly conflicted character. Avitan becomes involved with Yelena (Anna Dubrovisky), the port’s customs supervisor, who came to Israel from Ukraine, leaving her daughter behind. Their budding relationship is predictable from the moment we first meet attractive, pleasant Yelena; the analogy between the two absentee parents is part of the movie’s overall schematic nature. Also – spoiler alert – the eventual moral conflict to which their romance leads is likewise familiar from other movies, whether from Westerns or another genre I’d rather not name now. Despite all this, there is a certain charm to the scenes between Avitan and Yelena, not least thanks to Dubrovisky, who stands out from the movie’s largely male environment (Liron Ben-Shlush, who gave a wonderful performance in “Next to Her,” which she also wrote, does not get much of an opportunity to contribute here).
Despite everything I have said, “Homeport” is not a trivial picture. While it seems like nothing but plot for much of its duration, in its final part the movie manages to go further, adding an ideological ambivalence that in many ways almost redeems it. At this point the moral forthrightness of the film finally blurs, and it suggests that rigid integrity might have consequences that neither the hero nor his adversary want. The result is a social, economic and political comment on who really rules the port and, by extension, the country, where processes mirroring those that take place within the port claim so many victims.
In short, “Homeport” had considerable potential, if only Efrati had known how to shape the story better, and if Tadmor had been able to probe more deeply the reality he represents. Then the film’s local melodrama might have emerged in its full importance and relevance.