November 17, 2018

‘Ave Maria’: The Friday night dilemma

Filmmaker Basil Khalil has come up with an astute resolution to the Mideast conflict, based on the proposition that Israeli Jews and Palestinians will cooperate if that’s the only way they can get away from each other.

Khalil, born in Nazareth of a Palestinian father and a British mother, illustrates this dictum in his 15-minute movie “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary), which is among the five finalists for Oscar honors in the live-action short film category.

The opening scene has an Orthodox family driving toward their West Bank settlement, with the burly, bearded Moshe accompanied by his wife, Rachel, and sharp-tongued mother, Esther. They are in a hurry due to delays that Moshe blames on his mother’s incontinence, and Shabbat is about start in just a few minutes.

Distracted, Moshe sideswipes a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a small convent, knocking her off her pedestal. Living inside the convent are five Carmelite nuns of the Sisters of Mercy who have taken a vow of silence.

A noviate nun is sent outside to investigate the crash. She returns, gesticulating wildly, and in her agitation she breaks her vow of silence to exclaim, “The Jews have violated the Virgin.”

In the meanwhile, it’s Friday evening, and while the nuns own an ancient rotary phone to call for outside assistance, no one can use it: Moshe can not break Shabbat rules by dialing out, and the nuns, of course, cannot speak to anyone.

As the nuns try to figure out how to get rid of their unwanted guests and the Jewish family is desperate to leave and get home, antipathy becomes the mother of invention.

In a lively email exchange, Khalil, 34, reported that initially both potential financial backers and organizers of film festivals refused to touch the project.   

“I got rejected everywhere – everybody thought I was crazy to make a film about nuns and Israeli settlers,” Khalil wrote.

He persevered, and his breakthrough came when, “Ave Maria” was accepted at the prestigious Cannes film festival  and went on to win top prizes at other festivals. During the past seven months alone, the film has been shown at 56 different festivals.

While it is both quirky and funny, Khalil hopes that the film also conveys a message.

“When you grow up as a Palestinian in Israel, you realize that from the moment you are born, you have to take sides – whatever your religion,” he wrote. “You don’t get to choose, and you have to live by these rules without even choosing them. My message is to question the rules that are imposed on you.”

Asked what he would say in his acceptance speech if “Ave Maria” walks off with an Oscar, he first replied that after rehearsing his remarks in the shower for two months, he will probably say, “Hi, Mum, I’m on TV.”

Pressed for a more memorable response, Khalil answered, “I think I might give a speech something along the line of ‘the voice of art is louder than that of the extremists and their bombs, which pitch us against each other.’”

“Ave Maria,” along with other nominated short films, is now playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles and the Regency South Coast Village in Santa Ana. Throughout February, the film will also open at the Warner Grand Theatre In San Pedro, Town Center in Burbank, Covina Theatre in Covina, Citywalk Stadium in Universal City, Rave 18 in Los Angeles, Century 20-Bella Terra in Huntington Beach and in Laemmle theaters in North Hollywood, Pasadena and Claremont.