In God’s Neighbors, Meni Yaesh has managed to make a film that is both engaging and disturbing on an unlikely subject: a group of newly religious young men who make sure that religious law is observed in their Bat Yam neighborhood. The three use any means necessary to get their way – for them, it is God’s way – including threats, intimidation and, especially, violence. We hear about people like these toughs every day, and some of us may even have to avoid certain streets because of them. But the feat Yaesh pulls off here – and it’s a difficult one – is to get us to see the world through the eyes of one of these young men, Avi (Roy Assaf). As we get to know him and like him, we begin to see how isolated he is, in spite of all the hours he spends with his buddies.
We begin to root for him to find the redemption he is searching for and which, the director suggests, he can only find if he becomes more tolerant and less angry.
Avi is in his 20s or early 30s, single and lives with his widowed father, with whom he runs a fruit and vegetable stand. His father is traditional, but Avi’s fervent embrace of Breslov Hassidism has nothing to do with the way he was raised. Avi spends his evenings creating Hassidic trance music and hanging out with his like-minded friends, Kobi (Gal Friedman) and Yaniv (Itzik Golan). While each of these men on his own is awkward, confused and endearingly devoted to his faith, when the three of them are together, they incite each other into a righteous rage that is virtually murderous. At times, you can see the logic behind their actions. For example, when they ask a thuggish group of Russian teens blasting music from their car on a Friday evening to quiet down.
But when they get into a brawl and nearly kill the teens, you realize how disturbed they are.
They try to channel their energy into spiritual study, led by an American rabbi, but the level of the study is absurdly shallow and, in any case, they are like hyperactive kids who can barely focus on a text.
Although we don’t get their complete life stories, we sense that they have been drawn into their faith because of some darkness in their pasts, but the faith gives them only so much. The violence and control of policing the neighborhood satisfies deeper needs for them.
When a new girl, Miri (Rotem Zisman Cohen), whom Kobi thinks is showing too much skin, moves into the neighborhood, it creates a predictable rift in the group. Avi, who is more socially adept than his buddies, begins falling for her, while Kobi, more threatened by her sexuality, wants to scare her away.
While at times Avi seems implausibly mature and sensible, on the whole the script is believable and entertaining throughout. It isn’t easy to make these characters palatable, but Yaesh has a flair for dialogue and a great sense of humor, which helps enormously.
There is a particularly funny scene in which Avi and Kobi compare which of their communities – Avi is Turkish and Kobi, Moroccan – has more distinguished members and more annoying ones. I wonder how this will go over with foreign audiences: It depends on details, such as knowing who Tali Fahima is.
The other outstanding element is the acting. Roy Assaf, whom I have seen before but who didn’t stand out in the past, becomes a star with this performance. He is on screen almost every second and makes each moment count.
Rotem Zisman Cohen is lovely as the woman who makes him question his world view. And, in the role of Kobi, Gal Friedman, who is also a writer, is amazing.
You can see the crazy energy threatening to burst forth from this character at every second, as well as the resentment that lurks behind his affable, goofy façade.
He and Assaf work well together, and it’s easy to see how these characters bring out the best and worst in each other.
God’s Neighbors will most likely stir up controversy. Some will feel it is too flattering toward its zealots, while others won’t think it is critical enough. But for anyone more interested in a compelling film than a religious or political diatribe, God’s Neighbors is worth seeing.
Written and directed
by Meni Yaesh.
Hebrew title: Ha Mashgihim.
Running time: 98 minutes.
In Hebrew (Check with theaters for subtitle information).