Israel Film Festival: God’s Neighbors

The Israel Film Festival started last night in L.A. and The Boy and I trundled off—despite having seen No Place On Earth (review pending) the day before—to see God’s Neighbors, one of the more action-packed offerings in recent years.

Probably the first movie I saw in the IFF was Ha Ushpizin back in the mid-2000s, the delightful story of a rabbi and his wife and how their social struggles and religious ideals clashed. Not the sort of movie you’d see coming out of America.

Ha! Good Neighbors features, as protagonists, a lovable gang of religious zealots.

The hero of this film is Avi, a grocer’s son who goes around with his two pals enforcing respect for the neighborhood. The film opens with the three of them putting a beatdown on a rival…arab? secular Jew?…gang that deliberately sits in front of their apartments playing music too loud.

When Avi’s not making inspirational music, and smoking pot (and occasionally hash), he’s studying with his rabbi and working in his father’s grocery. When a cute girl (Miri) comes in he can only comment obliquely (but rudely) on her unchaste manner of dress (which is basically culottes and a tank top).

Later, he and his droogs pay her a visit admonishing her to dress more modestly and “respect the neighborhood”, to which suggestion she does not take kindly.

At the same time he likes her, and manages to get her to warm up to him only to blow it by menacing a local stylist who stayed open a little late on the Sabbath.

This creates a fairly typical dramatic tension: Avi likes Miri, and heeds what she says when she tells him what he’s doing is wrong, but he thinks he’s just doing God’s work. His friends are less philosophical, and perhaps more into the bullying aspect of their gang activities than anything, much like most of the other gangs running around the neighborhood.

But while the dramatic set up is typical, the tension is chiefly about Avi doing what he thinks God wants him to do. Unlike his pals, his belief is unquestionably sincere: When Miri connects with him about wanting to celebrate the Sabbath with him (which she hasn’t recently, she confesses), they share some romantic moments—during which Avi will not touch her, as that would be sinful.

Genuine spiritual struggle, presented sincerely, but without treacle and without glossing over the inherent difficulties in trying to live an ethical life in accordance with what God wants.

Pretty neat, actually. Like most of these Israeli films, you get the sense that the actors aren’t really acting so much as inhabiting real-life characters they know or (as in the case of Ha Ushpizin) actually are in real life.

Great start to the festival. Next up: By Summer’s End.

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