Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2016 7:33 pm 
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Ignored Jewish Orthodox wife in Jerusalem takes a walk on the wild side

Tzvia (Shani Klein) is a housewife and proper Orthodox mother of four and wife of Yeshiva teacher Reuven (Avshalom Pollak, who is often out after dinnertime and pays little attention to her. They live in a cave-like dwelling embedded along the edge of a Jewish cemetery on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. In her frustration Tiva makes it a habit of going out to the cemetery at night, sometimes in the daytime, for a smoke. More often than her husband would approve, she has conversations and shares smokes with the Hebrew-speaking Arab maintenance man of the cemetery. After a while she discovers that whores have sex with johns by the tombs, and their pimps or handlers are there too, at night. She starts hanging around there and bringing home-cooked meals to build some sort of relationship with these people. They regard her as pathetic or a freak but she nonetheless has conversations with them. The failure of her marital life and her frustration with her children lead her to increasing desperation. She seems literally entombed. The film ends with a violent action whose exact outcome is left unclear.

The film develops slowly. As Jay Wissberg explains in his detailed Variety review, initially outside of her family Tzvia's only contact is with Abed (Haitham Ibrahem Omari), the Palestinian caretaker of the cemetery. Relations with him are formal and polite but she's detached from him because he's a man and probably also because he's a Palestinian. When she encounters a drunken prostitute, she feels more at ease, even though she's "disrespected." Actually, Tzvia's relationship with the seedy characters at the edge of the cemetery at night remains limited, and repeated scenes show little development. Kayam clearly is seeking a slow burn, but almost winds up with a fizzle.

I found it difficult to warm to this film, which lacks the force or the brilliance of other recent films featuring Orthodox Jews, such as the beautiful (if questionable: it's like an ad for female enslavement) marriage film Fill the Void and the stunningly powerful, grim tale of a doomed gay love affair between Orthodox butchers, Eyes Wide Open. I liked the Orthodox drug mule story (based on fact), an unusual role for Jesse Eisenberg, Holy Rollers. Also notable for rich detail, despite initial stiffness, is the French Canadian film about an ultra Orthodox woman's affair with a secular man Felix and Meira, with its detailed portrait of a relationship. Mountain also lacks the vividness and complexity of other recent Israeli films, such as Nadav Lapid's s latest, The Kindergarten Teacher. Yaelle Kayam's method seems blunt and simplistic here, the material more like a short story than a feature film. Nonetheless as Tzvia, Shani Klein has a strange mixture of plainness and luminosity that is memorable, and some of the bleached-out imagers of the cemetery are rather unique. Besides which this is another not-so-subtle suggestion that Orthodox Jewish life is too stifling to bear -- at least for women.

Mountain/Ha'ar, 83 mins., debuted at Venice in the Orizzonti section, and showed at half a dozen other festivals, including Toronto; and New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review.

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