If portentous platitudes and heavy-handed symbolism were made edible, then Amos Gitai’s movies could feed the world. The director proves this once again with his latest feature film, Ana Arabia
, which was an audience favorite at the Venice Film Festival in September (where it won something called the Green Drop Award). His work, which generally comes in for scathing criticism here, is beloved by serious cineastes in Europe, putting him in a special category with Jerry Lewis.
He’s gone back to the formula he used in the 2005 film Free Zone
of putting a gorgeous young woman into situations where she asks Arabs naïve questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and listens, wide-eyed, to their answers. In Free Zone
, the young woman was played by Natalie Portman. In Ana Arabia
, it’s Yuval Scharf, portraying a journalist sent to Jaffa to interview the Arab-Israeli widower of an Auschwitz survivor.
Certainly, their marriage sounds like an interesting story, but it’s not a story we actually get to hear much about.
Instead, Scharf’s character, called Yael, strolls around asking obvious questions. The film is a great success in showcasing her beauty: The redhead who charmingly played a femme fatale in Avi Nesher’s The Wonders
earlier this year has never looked better than she does here. During the slowpaced film, there is ample time to count her freckles and to note how good she looks in her tight black jeans, black leather jacket and cashmere scarf, carrying a large leather tote bag. You’ll also have time to wonder how she affords this wardrobe on an Israeli journalist’s salary.
The man she is there to interview, Yussuf (Yussuf Abu Warda), is living in a house on a courtyard that has been in his family for years. He proudly recites his Mr. Natural credo, insisting he only works when he has to, in order to buy necessities such as food. Symbolism alert: His work, he tells the doe-eyed journalist, is gathering and selling debris from building sites for scrap – he is living off the junk from developers who are turning Jaffa into a chic, yuppie address and are displacing people like him and his family. He is in a dispute with the municipality over the ownership of his property. There was no problem about his wife being accepted there, at least at first, before 1948, since, in a line we hear time and time again, “There were no problems between Jews and Arabs here; everyone was the same.”
After chatting with him, she goes to talk to the rest of the courtyard’s inhabitants. Sara Adler, a fine actress, is wasted in the role of Miriam, his crunchy daughter who wears flowing skirts and tends the garden. I’d quote some of her lines about nature but my mind glazed over at a few points, and it was all I could do to stay awake. The gist of her monologues is that she is strongly connected to the land, as all people should be. She also alludes to criticism that her mother faced in being married to an Arab, presumably after 1948 when the Zionist meanies took over.
There is an interlude with Sara (Assi Levi), the widow of one of Yussuf’s sons. If you guessed that his name was Jihad, well, you’ve probably seen other Amos Gitai movies. Sara was Jihad’s second wife and moved with him to Nablus, where the children he had with his first wife rejected her and encouraged him to beat her. Eventually he died . . .
Hmm, the namesake of the mother of the Jewish people marries a man named Holy War and they have problems: Symbolism noted.
Yael drinks tea and chats with various other neighbors, one of whom is repairing an old jeep, and another who keeps an old horse. Everyone espouses the same messages: Greed is bad; nature and tolerance are good.
It ends with the camera pulling back to show this scrappy little courtyard situated in the midst of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
The final credit states that the entire film is one single shot. Just like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope
, you might think, and it might inspire you to rent that classic murder story, filled with suspense, intrigue and nasty humor – the perfect antidote to Ana Arabia
’s tepid pretension.
ANA ARABIA Directed by Amos Gitai
Written by Gitai and Marie Jose Sanselme
With Yuval Scharf, Yussuf Abu Warda, Sara Adler
Running time: 85 minutes.
In Hebrew and Arabic.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
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