Once Upon A Time There Was A King (29th Israeli Film Festival)

Here’s one I liked a lot more than The Boy. Once Upon A Time There Was A King is a documentary on Nissim Aloni, luminary of the Israeli stage in the ’60s and ’70s. For me, it’s a little like Jodorowsky’s Dune or Ed Wood: It’s a study in obsessive creativity, a striving for something greater than, well, than may actually be possible in this world.

Aloni fought in the War for Independence and went to Paris for a while, catching the absurdist bug, and riding his “been to Paris” cred back in the homeland to try to get some plays put on. This leads him ultimately to start his own theater, which struggles and fails, as the avant-garde plays don’t always connect with the audience.

Playwright? Or Playwrong!

I’m not even sure this is from the movie. Pretty sure it’s Aloni, though, in the ’60s.

Aloni, naturally, is difficult to work with and around. He writes his play, then as the actors run through the lines he feverishly takes notes, and spends all night re-writing the play. And he’ll do this day after day after day, for months on end. This does not please the money people in any country, and Israel is no exception.

Well, actually, he has a big hit early on, then a flop, then another big hit and he ends up occupying at least a sentimental position in the fledgling country. But ultimately he’s destroyed by critics, then by producers.

Art is hard, man.

His big success, if I recall correctly, was a riff on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where the boy who (in the original story) calls out the emperor’s nudity ends up the new emperor, with his own “clothes”. This was followed up by, well, some other ones. I think “The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter” was his next hit but it was too late.

The movie spends some time on one called “Napoleon, Dead or Alive” about an assassin sent to slay Napoleon only to find hundreds of Napoleons. Fat Napoleon. Skinny Napoleon. Girl Napoleon. Whatever.

Sounds like a hoot and a holler. (And more than a little derivative of Ionescu’s Rhinoceros.) But it’s impossible to tell from excerpts whether or not these plays are any good. To say nothing of the language barrier making it impossible quite beyond that.

But, like I said, I’ve known playwrights and other wild dreamers, and I love stories of creativity, even if they don’t come to pass as their originators imagined they would. (Maybe especially then?) So I related to this a lot more than The Boy, who was not “grabbed” by it.

On the Moviegique documentary scale:

  1. Subject Matter: I think it’s important, but obviously the fate of a lowly playwright in a distant land may not seem that way to everyone.
  2. Treatment: The treatment was quite good. Beyond the talking heads and film footage of Aloni, there were occasional animations of excerpts of his work, and I found those enchanting.
  3. Bias: Probably. As I mention, the guy was a sort of cultural hero in Israel, and while this doesn’t lionize him, it’s maybe a little indulgent.

It may have a narrow interest band, but if you’re in that band, I think you’ll enjoy this. Even though The Boy wasn’t crazy about it, he did like Aloni’s categorization of bland, mass-market art: He’s been running around saying “Porridge! I don’t want any porridge!”

So hard to tell...

Some of the sequences are animated in a whimsical fashion. This may be one of them.

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