After the giddy fun of Tel Aviv on Fire and the dour moodiness of God of the Piano, we were only able to see one other Israeli film during the festival. And it wasn’t easy. We went to get tickets for the first night and they were sold out, but we knew they had opened another show for the next night, so when we went to see God of the Piano we figured on picking up tickets then—but it had sold out before we got there. Then it occurred to me there was likely to be another slot opening up that Thursday they would put another showing in, and there was! But by the time it occurred to me (Tuesday) it had already sold out!
There was a showing that Sunday, but we’d have to go down to Beverly Hills, and it would be tricky—driving in the rain and with barely enough time to make it. Trickier than we thought, as it turned out, because we couldn’t buy tickets online for some reason. It wasn’t showing as sold out, though, so we risked it, only to find a line outside the theater going around the block. I dropped The Boy off in front to see if we could buy tickets and it turned out that we could! The line was just around the block because they were starting late and hadn’t let anyone in! (On a less happy note, the reason we couldn’t buy tickets online was that the theater was no longer part of our local chain, and we had seen so many fun things there.)
So, we did get to see it and it was delightful. And decidedly Israeli.
Quite apart from geography and politics, and even without overt mentions of religion, you would still be able to tell this is an Israeli film, with its mixture of comedy, drama, overarching spiritual themes and a view of humanity that is benign—but never naive.
Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon write, direct and star in this comical tale about a serious subject: Forgiveness. The movie (which is translated into English misspelled as “Forgivness” and I’m not sure that’s an accident) opens with Shaul (Amir) and Nissan (Savyon) pulling some sort of heist. Shaul is the brains and the talent of the duo, and he’s going down into the sewer and…not sure how, but he’s busting into a safe at the post office, which he can crack because he knows the safe very well (and may have installed it). His motivation? Well, his young daughter is terrified of the air raid sirens, so he needs enough money to get an apartment with a safe room.
Unfortunately for him, Nissan is an idiot. When the sirens go off, Nissan starts yelling for him—so Shaul comes back to find out the problem. He gives Nissan the loot then goes back for his tools, but the sirens go off and once again Nissan panics. The upshot is Shaul goes to jail and Nissan gets away with the loot.
Flash-forward several years later and Shaul is getting out of jail, and Nissan is there to greet him. Only now Nissan is a devout, orthodox Jew. It’s the high holy days, and Nissan is feeling real bad about what happened, and he wants Shaul’s forgiveness. But all Shaul wants is the loot and nothing to do with the converted Nissan.
There’s your premise. Shaul’s trying to get his life back together, to make amends to his alienated wife and daughter, who has been accepted into the The Big London Ballet School. (Probably “the Royal Academy” but whatever. Shades of God of the Piano as a plot point, though.) His wife has been struggling to survive in his absence, and that loot Nissan got away with would sure come in handy. Except, of course, Nissan no longer remembers where he buried it.
But Nissan is desperate. He has his own girl he wants to marry (the gorgeous pop star Shiri Maimon who does a nice job as the modest, unassuming traditional woman) but he feels he can’t while Shaul and his wife are in danger of splitting. And so he comes up with increasingly dumb and dangerous plans to get the money, which end up involving a local drug lord or two, more safecracking, and adventures right along the wall where the terrorists like to burrow in.
It’s very, very funny. Even wacky at times, as when the two conceive of robbing the local drug lord during a Palestinian attack by throwing a rocket at his wall, using sirens for cover. Needless to say the rocket doesn’t go off when they expect, and this is one of the times where the comedy seems to override what would be the actual reality. But none of that particularly matters.
We have a saying around here for the way a skillful filmmaker balances comedy and reality: The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but it takes its characters seriously. No matter how goofy the proceedings get, and no matter how dopey Nissan and Shaul get (as when Shaul accidentally ingests hashish), none of this is used to detract from their basic humanity. If you take Shaul’s point of view, Nissan is the source of his difficulties (never mind that he shouldn’t have been safecracking), and Nissan certainly seems naive at times. On the other hand, Shaul is quick to express his frustration through violence, which is certainly not going to help matters.
We all liked it a lot and it got a lot of applause from the packed theater. It won “Best of the Fest” along with “Incitement” (about Rabin’s assassination) and “Love In Suspenders”. Tel Aviv On Fire won “audience choice”, I believe.