August 18, 2019

Israeli Satire and Mystery

I first went wild over “Salah” in 1964. More than three decades later, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Israeli movie would still exert its charm and humor.

Not to worry. “Salah,” which launched a young Haim Topol on his international screen and stage career and was the first Israeli entry to be nominated for an Academy Award, has, if anything, improved with the passage of time.

Known as “Salah Shabbati” in Israel, the film chronicles the misadventures of a grizzled North African immigrant to austerity-ridden Israel, which houses him and his vast family in a decrepit transit camp.

Salah is determined to find decent housing, which is in desperately short supply, and in this mission-nearly-impossible, director-writer Ephraim Kishon manages to satirize just about every pillar of Israeli society: the Ashkenazi establishment, the pedantic bureaucracy, corrupt political parties, rigid kibbutz ideologues and, in one priceless scene, the Jewish National Fund’s tree-planting program.

Haim Topol, then a young man and of Ashkenazi heritage, plays the old Sephardic manipulator with such consummate skill that even aged immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia were convinced that he was one of them.

A short personal reminiscence: When “Salah” became a hit in Israel, a New York furrier acquired the American rights for pocket change. Nobody was more surprised than he when the picture was nominated for an Academy Award and he flew to Los Angeles with Kishon and Topol in tow.

Israeli playwright Dan Almagor, then living in Los Angeles, was a friend of Kishon, and he asked me to serve as the film’s publicist for the greater glory of the Jewish state and a total of $75 in payment.

Our PR campaign evolved into a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” effort, and while we didn’t win an Oscar, brother, we tried.

The Israel Film Festival has scheduled only one more screening of “Salah,” at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, at Laemmle’s Music Hall.

Forget about the job, forget about the family dinner, and hustle down to see “Salah.” Israel has never been such fun. And, yes, get your tickets early — last week’s showing was jam-packed with appreciative Israelis.

‘Song of Galilee’

Murder mysteries and detective yarns are a genre rarely tackled by Israeli filmmakers, but in “Song of Galilee,” Daniel Wachsmann proves that it can be done with satisfying tension and considerable style.

As a bonus, the hour-long TV film introduces viewers to a part of Israel well off the beaten track and reaches back 2,000 years to a tragic chapter in Jewish history.

Casting himself as the documentary director he is, Wachsmann turns detective when a reclusive young poet is found shot dead at the foot of Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee.

The police round up five suspects but releases them and closes the case as a suicide. As Wachsmann tracks down each of the close-mouthed suspects, he stumbles on a clan, descended from the last priestly guardians of the Second Temple, who have vowed to establish a secessionist Galilean state by force of arms, and may have hidden some of the temple’s treasures.

Those who know Israel mainly as a high-density coastal strip, will admire the rugged wilderness area that provides the setting for the film. Wachsmann populates this mountainous redoubt with as individualistic and ornery a bunch of characters as may be encountered in any American Western.

“Song of Galilee” will screen on Nov. 16 at 7:45 p.m., and on Nov. 19 at 9:30 p.m.