After I first saw “Saving Neta” – the fourth feature of director Nir Bergman, which he adapted with Eran Bar Gil from the latter’s novel “Iron” – at the Jerusalem Film Festival, I wrote that I would need a second viewing to evaluate the film properly. It surprised me, but also left me a bit puzzled about what it was Bergman was trying to achieve and whether or not he succeeded. I also wrote then that despite my uncertainty, I found “Saving Neta” more interesting than Bergman’s earlier films, although I am very fond of his first picture, “Broken Wings” (and less so of his subsequent movies, “Intimate Grammar” and “Yona”). What aroused my interest was the feeling that Bergman had finally ventured beyond the somewhat tedious, mainstream correctness of his earlier work and dared to make something almost experimental.
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Well, I’ve seen “Saving Neta” again, and even though I can see more clearly now what its main problem is – I’ll explain below – I found it even more interesting this time. The movie is made up of four seasonal stories focused on four women. The first involves Dalia (Rotem Abuhab), a career army officer and a single mother, who is trying to balance her private life with her busy routine as an interviewer of recruits trying to avoid military service. On the day her teenage daughter complains of a stomachache, she is too harried to pay her any real notice.
The second story focuses on Ruti (Naama Arlaky), a cellist who wants to have a baby together with her female partner (Kim Gordon), who is not sure that the time is right. The third is about a family picnic during which the father (Kobi Maor) tells his children that he is leaving their mother, Miri (Irit Kaplan), and the fourth involves Sharona (Neta Riskin), who prefers to be called Sharon and comes back from abroad to the kibbutz where she grew up: her mother has died, and her younger, mentally disabled sister, Dan-Dan (Nuria Dina Lozinsky), has to be placed in an institution.
And where, in all this, is Neta? Neta, it turns out, is a heavyset man with long, straggly hair who looks like a homeless person. Played by Benny Avni, his character appears in all four stories: he is fairly central to three of them, and only seen from a distance in the fourth. And why does Neta need saving? Clearly, this is a man whose life was thrown off-track by some crisis, but the details remain undisclosed until just before the end of the movie.
Unlike other recent films made up of several stories, the pieces comprising “Saving Neta” do not intersect on a narrative level: the only real connection between them is that Miri works at Dalia’s home, and Dalia worries that Miri has become her substitute in her daughter’s heart. Rather, the link between the stories is thematic, since all four deal with family relationships.
Watching “Saving Neta” gradually creates the impression that Bergman and Bar Gil tried to turn the four heroines into a composite portrait of femininity, at once fragmented and cohesive, and they do so subtly enough to avoid offering a too-obvious, overwhelming message.
To these four women (and other female characters contributing to the portrait they form, such as Dalia’s secretary, played by Bat-Elle Mashian) the movie juxtaposes Neta, with his masculine appearance and female-sounding name. As it emerges from the different stories, his character, too, seems at once fragmented and cohesive. Or, more accurately, it is narratively fractured, so that we sometimes wonder if the Neta shown in the four stories is really the same man, even though he is played by the same actor – a fact that only contributes to the representation of his existential crisis.
Clearly, this is a movie pursuing interesting goals, and the main question it raises – and here lies its problem – is whether these are successfully fulfilled. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, I appreciate the subtlety with which the stories are told and their verbal and behavioral precision. None of them strives to be extraordinary, making them almost banal, but there is nothing wrong with that; on the contrary, it adds to the movie’s valid portrayal of everyday emotion. “Saving Neta” touches on femininity and family life in an appealing way, but does it have something significant to say about them, about how they relate to each other, about all that they entail?
And what about Neta? Does the movie manage to pull his appearances in the different stories into a single, coherent character? Did it mean to? And if it didn’t – which is fair enough – how does this serve the question of his being “saved,” which hovers over the movie as a plot possibility without ever touching down? All this gives “Saving Neta” a vague feel, which does not detract from its interest, but also makes it seem like a work that keeps circling itself without managing to locate its own yearned-for focus. Perhaps Bergman and Bar Gil thought that such vagueness would make their movie more artistic, but it actually places us at an odd angle to the story they tell, diminishing the human and emotional experience of following it. At some moments “Saving Neta” seems as fractured as its eponymous hero, resulting in gaps and visual and narrative ploys that are occasionally odd and destabilizing.
Still, this is a movie worth seeing, and the entire cast does a good job. The fact that some of the actresses have never appeared in significant screen roles before (which does not detract from my appreciation for the performances of the actresses I did know, such as Abuhab and Kaplan) provides an added value of impressive female faces that enrich the local cinematic landscape. This, too, adds to the experience offered by “Saving Neta,” an experience that has much in it to make up for the movie’s flaws.