Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 11, 2014 12:42 pm 
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Good Israeli family boys turn into criminals

Israeli writer-director Tom Shoval's debut feature Youth brings up hot national issues like economic injustice, alienation, violence, sexism, and diminished expectations, but that wouldn't count for much if he had not crafted an intense, suspenseful story about a crime that is all the more visceral and shockingly physical for being done by a pair of young testosterone-fueled amateurs. What also makes this movie interesting is that it stars two first-timers who are brothers of slightly different age but so similar-looking they seem twins. Their real-life, instinctive blood intimacy is immediately and palpable: they make an explosive and riveting pair. In the story the brothers are Shaul Cooper (Eitan Cunio), the younger, and the older one, Yaki Cooper (David Cunio). Both are in their late teens and still live at home in the family apartment in Petah Tikva, a satellite town of Tel Aviv. But home is crumbling, despite their mother's effort to keep things together. Their father has lost his job, and they're losing their hold on their middle-class life, with ownership of their apartment a matter for immediate concern. But we learn this gradually. What we're watching almost right away is a kidnapping by two tough and determined young amateurs hyped by American action movies and perhaps their own country's casual militarism. Yaki, who's 18, has just joined the army, and is in uniform on leave and in possession of an assault rifle, which never leaves his shoulder and which will power their crime.

In the wordless opening sequence Shaul, still a high-schooler, follows a girl from his school to her apartment house. We think maybe he's a shy admirer, but his manner comes to seem too purposeful to be amorous. The way figures in space are shot by Yaron Scharf (Seven Days, Footnote) throughout Youth is almost sickeningly intense. After Shaul goes back and meets Yaki at home, they prepare their action, moving a mattress into a basement bomb shelter with heavy metal doors they secure with a newly purchased padlock. Shaul also tries out adhesive eye patches he's gotten for blindfolds. We learn he works ushering at a cinema showing American blockbusters, a feeble effort to augment family income like the envelope-stuffing he does with his mother (Shirli Deshe). The shadow is their depressed, anxious father Moti (Moshe Ivgy), who has gone back to smoking. Cigarettes become an apt symbol of panic in the movie.

The cruder the kidnapping the more shocking and real it is to watch. What's jaw-dropping first off is that the brothers grab Dafna Edelman (Gita Amely), the rich girl Shaul was following, in plain daylight, pull her over to behind a wall, tie and blindfold her, with masks quickly on and off, and man-handle her onto a bus. Sunglasses hide that she's blindfolded. Yaki's rifle is poked into her leg, but he's in army uniform: he's sacrosanct. Still somebody gets suspicious so they jump off and walk most of the way -- to their own apartment building. A lot of the time, though not on the bus, Dafna protests loudly. When she's tied in the basement she continues to do so.

All images of the girl's imprisonment are intense and real. And events that unfold are deeply ironic. Yaki shoots images with Dafna's cell phone of her tied up on the mattress and them poised over her with the rifle and in masks to dramatize their act and her situation, and sends the best shot to her parents with a text message demanding $152,000 for her release. But, big problem: nobody answers. Turns out not only are Dafna's parents so orthodox they strictly avoid picking up a phone on the Sabboth but they're used to the rebellious girl's making herself scarce on holy days, so won't be worried by her absence. And Yaki must soon return to his basic training.

A further fly in the ointment is that their mother, wanting to put a positive front on things and reenforce family ties, has unexpectedly set up a big holiday dinner for immediate relatives. The central scene is this special dinner Shaul and Yaki, to keep up their part of the front, attend upstairs with the whole family, including granddad who palms over holiday gelt to both brothers. Playing very schizophrenic roles while morphing into sociopaths, they behave politely even with a spoiled little girl at the dinner who makes big trouble for them, then rush down to the basement to see if the tighter wrap they've put on the girl's head hasn't suffocated her. (They manhandle and verbally abuse her, but Yaki is also clearly attracted to her.) Shoval skillfully ramps up ironies, contradictions, and suspense here. The way things play out is as brutal and unexpected as the beginning. Israeli cinema has been producing a string of powerful movies in recent decades and this is another to add to the list. Recommended.

Youth (U.S. Premiere), 107 mins. debuted in the Panorama section of the Berlin film festival in Feb. 2013. It was screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art joint series New Directors/New Films, where it has its US premiere, showing at Lincoln Center Tues., Mar. 25, 9:15pm and at MoMA Wed., Mar. 26, 6:00pm. Limited US theatrical release begins Friday 21 August 2015.

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