Movie review: ‘Infiltration’ needs more training

Kosashvili has the makings of a wonderful movie here, but they get lost in the mix.

311_1950s IDF (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_1950s IDF
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Dover Kosashvili.
Written by Kosashvili and Reuven
Hecker, based on a novel by
Yehoshua Kenaz.
120 minutes.
Hebrew title: Hitganvut Ichidim.
In Hebrew, check with theaters
for subtitle information.

Dover Kosashvili’s Infiltration is a kind of muddled, Israeli M*A*S*H. Based on the novel by Yehoshua Kenaz, it’s set in the Fifties and focuses on special boot camps where the Israeli army used to train recruits with physical and mental disabilities for noncombat units. Given the prestigious and central role the IDF played in the country then, morale in these training camps was understandably low. It’s ironic, because these days, the Israeli army is extremely careful about taking recruits with any kind of disability, apparently for fear of lawsuits. But back in the Fifties, the IDF wasn’t so picky.
It’s certainly a fascinating subject, especially because the platoon is a cross-section of Fifties Israel.
Recruits are from every ethnic background, several barely speak Hebrew, and they are there for all kinds of reasons, from serious illnesses such as epilepsy to bad attitudes. But as rich as this material is, and as well acted as the film is, it includes so many characters and such sprawling storylines that nothing has the impact it should. Kosashvili’s first feature, A Late Marriage, about a confused young graduate student from a very traditional Georgian family, was a huge hit, both critically and commercially. He is talented and ambitious, but Infiltration is a series of missed opportunities. Although many individual scenes are well done, it just doesn’t add up to a satisfying drama. These same problems afflicted his last Israeli feature film, A Gift from Heaven, about Georgian baggage handlers at the airport who steal and sell to gangsters. It went in so many directions, there was no way to get into it and it vanished quickly from the local scene. Kosashvili also made an English-language version of Chekhov’s The Duel.
In Infiltration, the main three recruits are distinct types. The least memorable, unfortunately, seems to get the most screen time: Avner (Guy Adler), a ladies’ man who wants to get through the army with minimal effort. His dalliance with an upper-class girl who has a boyfriend in an elite combat unit doesn’t really go anywhere, and his efforts to shirk every assignment he gets become repetitive. Alon (Oz Zehavi) is a kibbutznik who is sure he is there by mistake. He wanted to be in the paratroopers, and he constantly asks to be transferred out. But there’s a reason he is there, and although the screenplay wants to keep us guessing, it becomes clearer than it should as the film wears on. Ben Hamo (Asaf Ben Shimon) is the class clown, a North African mamma’s boy who provides most of the comic moments.

But there are many other recruits – the burly guy with epilepsy, the recent immigrant from Eastern Europe with a skin disease and so on – and we get bits and pieces of all their stories. There are also a number of commanders, but one of these stands out very clearly, Benny (Michael Aloni). Benny was once a commander in a more prestigious unit, and being transferred to this group is obviously meant as a punishment. But although he is in much the same boat as his malcontented soldiers, Benny takes out his frustrations on them. Michael Aloni, a young actor who is best known for his television work (on the children’s series, Ha Shminiya, among others), is truly the secret weapon in this military drama. He has a look and manner similar to Johnny Depp, along with a similar intensity. It’s impossible to focus on anyone else when he is on screen, even if he is a relatively minor character in a scene. All the actors in this ensemble drama do fine work, but his star quality makes him the standout.
Infiltration was one of the most anticipated films at the Jerusalem Film Festival but it’s hard to imagine it will connect with audiences here, or abroad.
Although it is only two hours, it feels longer. The ending, which is meant to be shocking, has been so foreshadowed, it feels manipulative. Kosashvili has the makings of a wonderful movie here, but they get lost in the mix.