September 15, 2019

Israeli Spy Drama ‘Spider in the Web’ Brings Twists and Turns

Ben Kingsley in “Spider in the Web.” Photo by Hannah Lawrence

From his 1984 debut “On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus” through his most recent release, “Shelter,” in 2017 and the acclaimed dramas “The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree” and “Zaytoun,” Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis is known for his provocative exploration of Middle East sociopolitics, often in a thriller context. In his latest release, “Spider in the Web,” Riklis returns to that wheelhouse to explore the story of an aging Mossad agent on his final mission.

In the script by Gidon Maron and Emmanuel Naccache, Avram Adereth (Ben Kingsley) knows that Mossad wants to retire him, and his desperation to deliver vital intelligence leads to reckless behavior. A young agent (Itay Tiran) is sent in to baby-sit him, forming the film’s most intriguing dynamic.  

“Adereth wants to make a mark but suddenly realizes he might be leaving with nothing, in disgrace. It’s his last hurrah. That fascinated me on many levels,” Riklis told the Journal. “I liked the juxtaposition with a young guy who has his own complexities and things to resolve. It’s about resolution and the chase in a world that is quite shady and takes you in surprising directions.”

Riklis, a big fan of John le Carré and his Cold War spy George Smiley, always has been intrigued by the concept of living a secret life, “creating a new person who takes over your old personality, living a double life while trying to stay alive,” he said. “It’s about identity, survival, dignity, loyalty, betrayal, trust. Small decisions have a huge impact, instantly. It’s a dangerous world. It’s a bigger-than-life situation.”

Mossad stories fit right into that. “It’s a fantasy, the world of secret services,” he said. “There’s an undercurrent of strength and the ability to win silently, under the radar. Israel has been fertile ground for these stories.”

“It’s a fantasy, the world of secret services. There’s an undercurrent of strength and the ability to win silently, under the radar.” — Eran Ricklis

Using an Israeli and Belgian crew, Riklis shot on location in the Netherlands and Antwerp, Belgium, switching from the original script’s Paris and Berlin. “It gives the film an offbeat touch because it’s a city that nobody knows,” he said. While he took the customary artistic license, “Everything you see is rooted in reality on many levels — personality-wise, acting-wise, the way things work.”

Riklis, 64, aimed to make “something relevant that says something about the Middle East and was intense with twists and turns and a fair amount of action, but when you strip all that away, you’re left with a character study,” he said. “Ben is amazing and Itay, who is one of the best theater actors in Israel, supplies the complexity and depth I needed for the character.” 

The central relationship between the two men “is what grabbed me from Day One in the script and it’s there in the movie. It’s like having two expensive violins. You put the bow on them and they almost play themselves,” Riklis said. He revealed that when the stars first met, “Ben was kind of cautious. But at lunch that first day, I told Ben that Itay played Hamlet in Tel Aviv and that was the turning point. That created an immediate bond, on and off screen.”

Now based in Tel Aviv, the Beersheba-born Riklis was exposed early on to films and TV, and made his own 8mm films.  He spent his early childhood in Canada, Brazil and the United States, relocating for his father’s nuclear science studies and career. The frequent moves required some chameleon-like adjustments, perhaps accounting for his affinity for spies. “It was about adapting and making friends and identifying enemies, like the secret services of the world have to do,” he said.

An Ashkenazi Jew and a 10th-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, Riklis is married to film director Dina Zvi-Riklis and is the father of Tammy, a journalist, and Jonathan, a musician and composer who wrote the score for “Spider in the Web.” 

“As an Israeli, it goes without saying that I was always connected to Judaism as part of my life,” he said. “Although my family and I were and are totally secular.”

Riklis’ next project is a movie based on the memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” set in post-revolution Iran. It centers on a fired female literature professor who creates a secret book club. He’s also developing some projects for television. “For me, it’s about making a list and sorting out what you really want to do. At this point in life, there’s a clock ticking somewhat so I can’t really waste time on things that are not important for me to make,” he said. “I don’t want to say I have to make important films but I do want to make films that have a relevance to what’s going on everywhere but especially in Israel.”

Riklis said he is proud of “Spider in the Web” on both a cinematic and storytelling level. “I think it’s an exciting experience with tension and twists and turns and Middle East intrigue that is also an emotional ride,” he said. “It’s an old school meets new school blend that combines the genre with the search for something new.”

“Spider in the Web” opens in theaters Aug. 30.