Hebrew title: Zinuk B’aliya
Directed by Oren Shtern
Written by Shtern and Riki Shulman
With Shlomo Bar-Aba, Idit Teperson
Running time: 90 minutes In Hebrew and Arabic.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The genial comedy Hill Start is mostly predictable but has a few enjoyable surprises up its sleeve. The first surprise comes right at the beginning.
The film starts out with a middleaged woman running a halfmarathon on the streets of Jerusalem – and winning. When has a movie ever opened that way? I think this may well be the first time, and it’s refreshing to see the spotlight on a strong, older woman.
The woman is Ora Geva (Idit Teperson), a high school gym teacher and matriarch of a well-to-do Jerusalem family, who are there to cheer her on. Her husband, Micha (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a plastic surgeon who has a practice with their son, Ari (Itay Tiran), is overjoyed at his wife’s win. But a moment later, the arrogant and square Micha is scandalized when Ari announces that he is marrying his girlfriend, Reli (Rotem Zussman), a gutsy, sexy Mizrahi girl who works as a detective.
Even Ari’s supportive sister, Shlomit (Mali Levi), is disconcerted when she hears of their wedding plans. Single and lonely, she teaches Arabic in the same school where her mother works and gets into trouble for asking her students to write from the point of view of Palestinians their age. She has a fantasy crush on an Arab crooner and matinee idol Ahmed (Yousef “Joe” Sweid) but isn’t interested in getting to know the single men around her, much to her parents’ dismay.
The day of Ari and Reli’s wedding arrives, and there is a car accident as the family drives to the ceremony. Ora suffers a head injury that leaves her comatose. The wedding is postponed, and Micha’s license is suspended and he must retake the driving test before he can get it back.
But he’s become nervous and frightened since the accident, and when he meets Liat (Romi Aboulafia), a young, pretty female driving instructor (who also teaches yoga and gives her driving students relaxation exercises), he becomes obsessed with her and is convinced that only she can help him pass the test.
The rest of the family deals with its grief and anxiety over the mother’s condition in different ways. Ari keeps seeing Reli but can’t take the step of speaking to his father about rescheduling the wedding, which makes her crazy. Shlomit decides to train for and run the half-marathon herself and enlists the help of the gym teacher who replaces her mother, Motti (Yossi Marshek), who is wheelchair-bound.
The movie is about how the absence of their mother pushes them all to get their lives together in different ways, and it all plays out a little too neatly. But the characters are so likable and the acting is so good that it is several cuts above the usual formula comedy.
Shlomo Bar-Aba, who played the lead in Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, doesn’t mind portraying abrasive characters, and he is in his element as Micha, a man who is happy to take women’s money to enlarge their breasts to grotesque proportions and tells his driving instructor she needs a nose job. Bar-Aba makes what could have been a two-dimensional figure into a complex, believable character.
He may see flaws everywhere he looks, but it humanizes him that he is married to the angular, not conventionally beautiful Ora, played by Teperson, a character actress who was wonderful in another Joseph Cedar movie, Campfire. The actors playing the younger generation also give entertaining performances.
One plot development is worth noting. Through a very improbable coincidence, Shlomit gets to meet her idol, the Palestinian singer Ahmed.
Sweid is both funny and sexy as this matinee idol, who is used to being swooned over and enjoys it. The dialogue between them is witty. “Are you from the Left?” he asks her, and she answers, “No, I’m from Rehavia” – and it takes a while to notice that their flirtation is being played for comedy. No heavy, portentous drama about a Jewish-Arab romance, just some laughs, mostly over the fact that he is so confident and she is so shy.
Like the opening with a middle-aged woman running a marathon, this has to be a first for Israeli movies, and a welcome one.