September 23, 2019

Philosophers and Fools

Above, Suheil Hadad (left) and Muhamed Bakri (right) in “TheMilky Way”; Below, Arik Sharon in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda.


‘The Milky Way’

This earthy, lyrical film by writer-director Ali Nassar is easilyone of the festival’s brightest highlights. Fresh, impassionedperformances and a solid script are enhanced by painterly, almostfable-like images. For the lilting, lovely score, Nahum Haiman’soriginal music is interwoven with traditional Arabic melodies. “TheMilky Way” reinforces some of the best reasons to go to “foreign”films. We’re drawn into an unfamiliar and fascinating world where weend up recognizing large parts of ourselves.

The year is 1964. The setting is an Arab village in the Galileeduring the last year of military rule. There, on rocky, sunlithillsides dotted with goats, and in modest, candlelit rooms, work,love and social ritual coexist with deep unhealed wounds — a legacyfrom the war in 1948, when many of the villagers fled or were killedin the fields where they stood.

Those left behind are a diverse bunch: There’s the opportunisticvillage mukhtar and his brutish, hotheaded son. The film’staciturn hero is a metalsmith named Mahmoud (Muhammed Bakri –chiseled and compelling as always), who shares a tender friendshipwith Mabruq, the town’s tragicomic fool. As the childlike Mabruq,actor Suheil Haddad is incapable of duplicity, and he wears theentire village’s emotional landscape on his rubbery, expressive face.

The central narrative is a neatly developed story about whatensues after the area’s Israeli military command discovers one of thevillagers has been issuing forged work permits. But linear plotsummaries don’t do justice to what filmmaker Nassar has achievedhere. “The Milky Way” is a richly knowing portrait of a worldbrimming with bawdy humor, petty cruelty, derailed dreams and smallsensual pleasures.

The rangy and reserved Mahmoud pokes his head flirtatiouslythrough the classroom window of the village schoolteacher, chidingher for the politically utopian songs she passes along to her youngstudents. Mabruq and a gaggle of boys play raucous games that reflectthe everyday reality of the adults — including the staging of akangaroo trial in which Mabruq, wearing a tattered, makeshiftmilitary uniform and holding one boy by the scruff of the neck, askshis court with mock outrage, “How did this dirty Arab threaten statesecurity?” “He pissed without a permit!” a boy shouts back amid awave of wild giggles.

Several times in the film, Mabruq shares tenderly romantic lookswith the orphaned Jamila, another badly damaged innocent herecognizes as a kindred spirit. The two are emblematic of life inthis village, where brutal realism and impossible poetry are intimateneighbors.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 9, 13, 15, 16 and 19, and atthe Writers Guild on Nov. 6.)


‘How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon’

Is there a festival award for best title? The ostensible subjectof this video documentary is that (in)famous lightning rod, armygeneral-turned-pol Ariel Sharon. Director-editor-producer Avi Mograbidoggedly follows the rotund ex-general down the Likud campaign trailduring that volatile period between Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination andBinyamin Netanyahu’s election victory.

But as the playful title intimates, the movie is less about Sharonhimself than the place he occupies in the lives of Mograbi and otherdisaffected leftists like him. Mograbi’s eventual “love” for hissubject is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek falsehood. “Arik Sharon,”the filmmaker tells us at the outset, “is the only politician whosedoings, so I felt, had a direct effect over my life. And it wasscary.” Mograbi (who served jail time rather than serve during theLebanon War) proceeds to elaborate on the nature of his lifelongobsession with Sharon and the emotional havoc it has caused him.

It’s a funny, faux confessional delivered gloweringly into thecamera. Mograbi’s lumpy, affable face and bushy eyebrows are apicture of comic intensity as he relates how his childhood heroworship of the daring combat veteran gradually mutated into a fearand loathing that peaked with the bloody episode that occurred at theLebanese refugee camps Sabra and Shatila under Sharon’s indirectwatch. Mograbi’s documentary is film-as-therapy: He hopes to conquerhis complex obsession with the charismatic, seemingly likable manbehind the left-wing’s ongoing nightmare.

His initial failed attempts to gain access to Sharon are funny andtelling. They recall American provocateur Michael Moore’scat-and-mouse battle of wits with the head of General Motors in hisown satiric documentary, “Roger and Me.” Unfortunately, the parallelsend there. Although Mograbi’s resourcefulness and persistenceeventually gain him a limited kind of access to his cagey, powerfulsubject, unlike the brasher Moore, he’s not as certain of what to doonce he gets it. This proves to be the film’s undoing. Sharon’sentourage embraces Mograbi as one of them, and we see that theirdevotion to their leader is simultaneously discomfiting and touching.As for the fox-like Sharon (who repeatedly tells the filmmaker toshut down the cameras when he wants to eat), he tolerates Mograbiwith a wary affability when he’s not handily dismissing him as aminor logistical annoyance.

Mograbi may not love Sharon after all, but the bigger, unintendedirony is that he hasn’t overcome his paralyzing fear of him either.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 13, 15 and 18.)

‘Jenny & Jenny’

Seventeen-year-old cousins Jenny Suissa and Jenny Guetta are bestfriends. They’re also cousins — third-generation North African Jewsgrowing up in the crowded, working-class seaside town of Bat Yam.Both are resolutely bored with high school, charmed by theirprovincial grandmother, exhilarated about boys and mightily alienatedfrom their blunt fathers. With empathy and insight, filmmaker MichalAviad tracks the two as they drift through their lives during thatseminal summer between girlhood and womanhood. The end result is adecidedly unslick video documentary that captures the way growing upfemale is done in this time and place.

This sort of material could easily end up a predictable fugueabout teen angst, sort of a low-budget version of MTV’s “Real World.”But Aviad avoids superficiality. Simple and complex truths emerge ontheir own, recalling the spirit of “Hoop Dreams” and — with itscinéma vérité scenes of domestic conflict– the raw candor of “An American Family.”

Ultimately, this is a very Israeli story. There’s poignancy inwatching these girls negotiate a blue-collar Middle Eastern worldrife with contradictions. Their cultural milieu is steeped inSephardic folkways and saturated with pop Western images. Theirparents invoke tradition but are confused about their ownincreasingly ineffectual familial roles. Religion as a spiritualresource is absent. Despite the Jennys’ penchant for sexy,midriff-baring tops, late-night club-hopping and enough finger andear jewelry to short-circuit a metal detector, their aspirations aresolidly retro: marry young, have kids, fade to black.

At times, their naiveté is painful to watch. Jenny Guetta’splan for the future pretty much consists of escaping from herdomineering father’s house into a husband’s. Her marriage celebrationwill have to be large and lavish, she says, because “if we have anunforgettable wedding, that will make sure we never stop loving eachother.”

It’s her smarter cousin, Jenny Suissa, who expresses a restlesshum of discontent. Her tentative, heartfelt search for the meaning oflife beyond Bat Yam’s figurative parameters provides this film withits best moments. To make that journey, she’ll need extraordinarycourage and imagination. During filming, her father abandoned thefamily for a new life in Las Vegas. Her older female relatives areloving, but of another era. Her swa
ggering male classmates (“My idealspouse? A virgin, a good girl who knows her place,” says one) areunlikely sources of salvation. This Jenny is poised uncertainly onthe brink of self-discovery. How it will all turn out for her is aquestion we’ve come to care about by film’s end.

(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 12, 15 and 18.)