sweet mud 298.88.
(photo credit: Eyal Fisher/Liebermann-Aharoni Communication)
Directed and written by Dror Shaul. Hebrew title: Adama Mishugat. 90 minutes. In Hebrew; some prints have English titles. With Ronit Yudkevitch, Tomer Steinhof, Henri Garcin, Shai Avivi, Danielle Kitzis, Gal Zaid, Rivka Neumann, Hila Ofer, Pini Tavger.
An intense, disturbing coming-of-age drama about a boy with a mentally ill mother, Sweet Mud falters only in its unevocative title. The plot may sound familiar - there are so many coming-of-age stories about children with crazy mothers - but director/writer Dror Shaul makes it fresh with his vivid and often bitterly funny depiction of the film's setting, a kibbutz in the 1970s. The director, who has spoken publicly about the film's autobiographical content, is still a young man, and there is a raw quality to the rage he expresses in the film that makes it extremely compelling. He manages to convey a child's outrage and perplexity at the way the adults around him abuse his mother that is sad and sometimes frightening. You can feel the child's loneliness and empathize with his intense and doomed wish that his troubled but loving mother would behave normally.
The strength of the movie lies in its depiction of a gallery of characters, but Shaul never loses sight of the story's primary focus - 12-year-old Dvir (Tomer Steinhof) and his mother, Miri (Ronit Yudkevitch). Although his young, model-pretty mother, a widow, is charming, it gradually becomes clear that she has a history of psychosis and hospitalization. The kibbutz, which was her husband's home, has kept her because its members feel it is their duty, but they're not particularly happy about being burdened with a woman like her.
The kibbutz members of Sweet Mud are much more than a collection of cute eccentrics, as they've been portrayed in so many previous films. Here, there's always a twist. Avram (Shai Avivi), who looks and sounds like the stereotypical easy-going kibbutznik, turns out to have - how to put it? - an unusually close relationship with the cows he takes care of. A pretty young teacher gives a humorless, ideological sex education lecture that is the film's comic high point, then goes off to continue a loveless affair with a married man. While Shaul does have a sense of humor and, very occasionally, a certain affection for the kibbutz residents, it becomes clearer and clearer that they are frustrated people who often treat each other with great cruelty. When that cruelty is turned against a creature as vulnerable as the boy's mother, the results can't be anything other than tragic.
In the beginning, there seems to be hope for Miri. Stephan (Henri Garcin), a Swiss man she met on vacation and started a correspondence with, comes to visit her. Dvir is apprehensive about meeting him, but although Stephan is much older than anyone might have guessed, he really is kind, engaging and - to Dvir's delight - a judo champion. But he soon gets into trouble with the kibbutz's male residents, many of whom have long had their eye on Miri. With his abrupt departure, life becomes bleaker for Miri, and also for her son. She seemed to flower with Stephan, but without him she deteriorates with a heartbreaking but very real suddenness.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Ronit Yudkevitch's understated but moving performance as Miri is the heart of the movie. She makes us care about the character and despairingly wish for her to conquer her mental illness, just as her son does. Some of the finest character actors in Israel, including Gal Zaid, Shai Avivi, Hila Ofer, Rivka Neumann and Pini Tavger, appear in key supporting roles. Garcin, a Belgian actor, is also believable and likable in his key role. And Steinhof is clear-eyed and steady in the pivotal role of the son.
By exploring the ways in which the kibbutz members exploit their community's collectivist ideology for personal gain (and sometimes to hide their own weaknesses), Shaul makes a larger point about Israeli society that raises the film far above the level of a TV movie-ofthe-week about mental illness. Sweet Mud is a deft blend of social criticism, comedy and drama. It's no surprise that it was shown in competition at the high-profile Toronto International Film Festival, or that it tied with Aviva, My Love for best picture at the Ophir Awards earlier this month. (The film will become Israel's official submission for a best foreign film Oscar nomination if it's chosen in a runoff ballot by the Israel Academy for Film. The results of the unprecedented runoff vote are expected today.)
Although Israeli audiences have flocked to the broadly comic and melodramatic Aviva, Sweet Mud is a far more original and ambitious film, one that will undoubtedly have a greater impact on foreign viewers.