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Hanna Azoulay Hasfari and Juliano Mer-Khamis in "Rage and Glory.".(Photo by: COURTESY AVI NESHER)
Rage, glory and Avi Nesher
The celebrated Israeli director discusses the digitally restored release of his controversial 1984 film "Rage and Glory."
‘If you take the controversy over Foxtrot and multiply it by a thousand, this is the magnitude of the reaction to Rage and Glory in 1984,” said Avi Nesher, speaking about the release of a digitally restored version of this film, which will be shown on December 20 at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. It will be followed by a conversation between Nesher and Yair Raveh, a film critic and editor of the Cinemascope website.

The restoration was undertaken by the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Israel Film Archive.

“They have a selection committee, their agenda is to do restoration on classics that are not well known.

They said, ‘We can do the restoration on Ha Lahaka [The Troupe, Nesher’s 1978 debut film], but that’s so well known. Or we can do Rage and Glory.”

Nesher, who is one of Israel’s most celebrated directors, burst onto the Israeli movie scene at the age of 24 with The Troupe, the story of an army entertainment group which was a huge hit. He followed it up with another popular film about young people in Tel Aviv, Dizengoff 99, the following year. After the release of Rage and Glory, he attracted the attention of movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis and went to Hollywood, where he stayed for more than a decade.

Since his return to Israel in 2001, he has made five extraordinary films: Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), The Secrets (2007), The Matchmaker (2010), The Wonders (2013) and Past Life (2016). Currently, he’s editing his latest film, The Other Story, which will be released in 2018.

But working on a new movie doesn’t diminish his pleasure in the restoration of Rage and Glory, which, for many reasons, is especially close to his heart.

The complex, suspenseful and moving film, which tells the story of a group of Lehi [the pre-state underground movement] fighters in the early Forties headed by the brave, charismatic and ruthless Eddie (Juliano Mer-Khamis), was hailed by critics abroad as a masterpiece.

In Israel, however, it was assailed on many fronts.

“People who loved Ha Lahaka and Dizengoff 99 didn’t want me to make this, even though, in many ways, it’s not that different, it’s about a group of young people and it’s clearly from the same filmmaker, it has the same dynamics – but people die and kill.

So, for the public, this was not a film they wanted from this filmmaker they really liked.”

But the most vitriolic attacks were political in nature. Part of this was a factor of the timing, since the movie was released in the darkest days of the first Lebanon War, when the country was especially polarized. “It was attacked viciously, interestingly enough, both from the right and from the left... I knew I was stepping into a minefield. Think about the history of Israeli cinema, and think about the extraordinary history of Israel as a nation and think why so few movies have been made about this.

“People from the right saw the movie as a something that justifies Palestinian terrorism, because if our freedom fighters can do what they do and be called heroes, then theirs are heroes as well.” The Lehi fighters in Rage and Glory target British officials and not civilians, but this is a distinction that was lost on Nesher’s right-wing critics.

For the left, “Rage and Glory dares to open with documentary footage from the Holocaust, and as we know, the extreme left vilifies Zionist history and they say the Zionists use the Holocaust as an excuse to subjugate the Palestinians. So for them, anything that combines the Holocaust with the Zionist mythology is really right-wing propaganda. Far-fetched, and yet, this is what they think.”

A war against the movie raged in the media. “You would get long editorials attacking from the right, attacking from the left... There was a Knesset session about this, it was a big, big deal. I got bomb threats, Juliano Mer got bomb threats.”

For Nesher, the key issue was whether it was actually a good movie, and for him, that meant whether it told its story truthfully.

“The interesting thing, as with all my movies, everything in the movie is true. It’s just like Ha Lahaka, just like Past Life, I did very extensive research and I interviewed more than 30 Stern Gang members and I involved them in the training of the actors... Yitzhak Shamir, who was the head of the Lehi and who was prime minister at that time...came to the screening on opening night, half the government was there. Afterwards, he came up to me and hugged me. And he said, ‘Listen, this movie shows our life in the Lehi exactly the way it was.’” The son of Holocaust survivors, Nesher is certain that had he been alive then, “I would have been in the Lehi for sure... For me, a Jewish nation is a must. That’s why Rage and Glory starts with the Holocaust.

Because they did the only thing that I think is a must-do: Save Jews from the Holocaust. All the rest is narrative.”

Another issue the right had with the movie was the casting of the lead. Juliano Mer-Khamis was the son of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father who had served in the IDF. Nesher heard about his volatility – he once destroyed the set of a play he was in with an ax – but cast him anyway.

“There was something really explosive about him,” Nesher commented.

Mer-Khamis gives one of Israeli cinema’s sexiest and most compelling performances, said Nesher, “Like [Robert] De Niro in Taxi Driver...

When Rage and Glory came to America, he [Mer-Khamis] was considered to be the second coming of Antonio Banderas. He got offers. But he wasn’t interested.”

Mer-Khamis eventually became a Palestinian activist, opening a theater group in Jenin. He was murdered in 2011, presumably by Islamic extremists.

“I was the only Jew who was allowed to speak at his funeral... We really loved each other,” Nesher said.

In another unusual footnote, Nesher had to double for his lead actor in the movie’s climactic scene, where a building is blown up, after Mer-Khamis was injured.

“We found a building that was going to be blown up to build the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center,” Nesher said. “And we had to film it then. We couldn’t ask them to wait a few days.”

David Gurfinkel, the cinematographer, pointed out that there was enough of a resemblance between Nesher and Mer-Khamis that the director could pass for the actor.

“I did all of Juliano’s stunts in that scene... That’s me leaping in the air and in all the long shots... It’s such an amazing metaphor because the movie ends when he falls on razor wire... The razor wire, it was cutting me to pieces, I was full of fake blood and real blood... I’m in horrible pain, but all I can think about is, ‘If I can hang on for another few minutes, I’ll be happy in the editing room.’” One more reason that the movie is so close to Nesher’s heart is that he met his wife, the artist Iris Nesher, on the set. She was an extra in one of the party scenes and returned to double for the lead actress in reshoots.

“It was very romantic, we first saw each other in costume. If there is any way you want to look when the woman you are going to marry first sees you, this is it,” he said, gesturing to a photo of him in costume, looking tough and holding a gun.

He smiled and as he reflected on the extraordinary story of this movie, Nesher remembered the rage but chose to focus on the glory.

The Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival runs from December 16-21.
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