There was a certain excitement in the air at an early screening of Avi Nesher's latest film, The Secrets, which was held last week at Cinema City (Note to the Cinema City management: It wouldn't hurt if signs were posted directing drivers to the country's largest theater complex).
Nesher's previous film, Turn Left at the End of the World, a coming-of-age story of two immigrant girls in a Negev development town, was one of the biggest domestic successes in the history of Israeli movies, selling over 600,000 tickets.
Nesher is the rare Israeli filmmaker who parlayed his early success in Israel, where he made such beloved films as The Troupe (Ha'Lahaka), into a Hollywood career, directing action and science-fiction films. Even more unusual, though, he has chosen to come back to Israel to make movies that are closer to his heart. In an interview I did with him in 2004, he credited Jerusalem Cinemateque founder Lia van Leer with convincing him to come back to make Turn Left, an extremely entertaining and appealing film - one of several that helped revitalize Israeli cinema in 2004.
So it's no surprise that expectations for The Secrets were high. The movie revisits some themes that Nesher explored in the past (intense friendships bordering on lesbian flirtations between two young women), but the action is located in an unusual setting for the secular director: a women's college for religious studies in Safed.
The idea for the film and the details probably came from Nesher's collaborator on the screenplay, Hadar Galron, an Orthodox, London-born actress, comedian and playwright. Galron has written and performed in some satirical revues critical of the Orthodox establishment, and she won awards for Mikve, a stage play about women who meet and bond at a ritual bath. Galron and Nesher's distinctive talents and frames of reference combine well, if not seamlessly, to make a movie that is an intriguing and sensitive exploration of the lives of young Orthodox women - a group that doesn't tend to get a lot of screen time.
As with Nesher's earlier films, the performances are wonderful, with relative newcomers Ania Bokstein and Michal Shtamler in the leading roles. French actress Fanny Ardant, Francois Truffaut's partner on-screen and off until his death (she starred in Truffaut's last two films, The Woman Next Door and Vivement Dimanche!) has a key role as well.
The movie is set to open the Cinema of the South Festival at the Sderot Cinematheque in early June. Three years ago, Nesher also chose that venue for the premiere of Turn Left - a decision that certainly helped the fledgling Negev festival garner some publicity.
A NUMBER of recent Israeli documentaries will be playing at the Jerusalem Cinematheque this week, and they showcase the great variety in subject and approach that characterize the Israeli documentary scene today. Galia Oz's Rebelling Against the Kingdom looks at several Jewish groups that turned to violence, including the Jewish Underground of the early Eighties. It's playing today, Friday, at 1:30 p.m.
Nadav Schirman's The Champagne Spy examines another chapter of not-too-distant Israeli history, focusing on the fascinating story of Wolfgang Lotz, who posed as a Nazi in Cairo to obtain information on the German nuclear scientists developing weapons there. Champagne Spy is playing on Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
The economic and social collapse of the kibbutz movement has been in the news more than ever recently, and Lavi Ben Gal's Eight Twenty Eight takes an insider's view. The director, who grew up on a kibbutz, returns at the age of 28, when those born there are required to decide whether they want to leave or settle permanently as members. Ben Gal uses his personal dilemma to examine the larger concerns of how the kibbutzim have changed. It's showing on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.
Veteran Israeli director Dan Wolman, whose latest feature film was Tied Hands, now turns his camera on his own parents and examines their extraordinary lives, both in Israel and abroad, in Spoken With Love. His father was the personal physician for Haile Selassie, but what will stay with you after you see the film more than their unusual resum is the intensity and complexity of his parents' relationship. It's playing on Thursday at 7 p.m.