THE BUBBLE - ****
Directed by Eytan Fox. Written by Fox and Gal Uchovsky. 90 minutes. Hebrew title: Habuah. In Hebrew and Arabic, some prints have English titles.
With Ohad Knoller, Yousef Sweid, Alon Friedman, Daniella Virtzer, Shredi Jabarin, Roba Blal, Zion Barouch, Oded Leopold, Lior Ashkenazi, Ivri Lider
Director Eytan Fox has taken a clear look at how many Israelis actually live and has made a vibrant, engaging movie that reflects reality. Of course, we don't all live on Tel Aviv's fashionable Sheinkin Street, as his protagonists do, but we do try to balance the unique dangers of life in Israel with all the country has to offer.
Fox, who made Yossi & Jagger
and Walk on Water,
has created a movie that mixes politics, humor, drama and romance as he focuses on a group of friends - both gay and straight - who live and work in "the bubble,"
the chic cafes, shops and clubs of Tel Aviv. But the real story of the movie is not their rarefied existence but how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - which they push away from their thoughts as they work and play - becomes a part of their lives, and how they end up living the tragedy from which they tried to hide.
This may sound like a didactic story, but it's anything but. It works because Fox has triumphed in several ways. First, he has created a likable, believable set of characters, so it isn't a story about "the conflict" but about recognizable, credible human beings. Second, he embraces a truth that many Israeli filmmakers have refused to acknowledge: Tel Aviv is fun.
In one movie after another, directors have portrayed the capital of Israel's secular cultural life as a swamp (rather than a bubble) of alienation, loneliness, cruelty, promiscuity, decadence and unchecked materialism (Year Zero, Distortion, Shuru and Life According to Agfa are just a few of these films). An outsider who had never visited the city but only knew it from the movies would be forgiven for thinking of Tel Aviv as a kind of penal colony for secular Ashkenazim, but Fox shows the world of Tel Aviv's young residents as he (and many others) see it: a hip, culturally vibrant and often very tolerant place.
He realizes that his young characters are trying to shield themselves from some of the harsh realities of the Middle East, but he doesn't condemn them for this. He is understanding about why young people like Noam (Ohad Knoller, who won the Best Actor Award at the Tribeca Film Festival for his performance in Yossi & Jagger
), an aspiring musician who does military reserve duty at a checkpoint on the West Bank, feels conflicted (he is against Israeli policy but does not want to allow a suicide bomber to slip through).
Noam returns as quickly as possible to his life as a clerk in Ha'ozen Ha'shlishi, a sophisticated music store. Even though he is clearly uncomfortable conducting searches of Arabs, he doesn't want to spend his life as an activist, protesting. He prefers to hang out with his roommates, Yeli (Alon Friedman), who manages a fashionable cafe', and Lulu (Daniela Virtzer), who works in a fancy soap shop. They go out to clubs and see performers like Ivri Lider (who has contributed songs to most of Fox's previous movies and plays himself here), while looking for love.
For all of them, romance is a tricky proposition. Lulu does her best with commitment-phobic males such as a self-satisfied Time Out Tel Aviv editor (Oded Leopold), while Yeli gets involved with Golan (Zohar Liba), a hunky guy who comes to his cafe' looking for a job as a waiter. But the plot really gets going when Ashraf (Yousef Sweid), a Palestinian Noam met briefly while on reserve duty, shows up at the apartment.
It's easy to see why Ashraf, whose sexual orientation makes him an outsider with his family and friends in Nablus, would find Sheinkin Street a safe haven, and for a while he revels in its pleasures. But when he can no longer keep his life in Tel Aviv separate from the world in which he has grown up and when the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian strikes at his own family, the story takes a tragic turn.
The cast gives uniformly excellent performances. Knoller is the standout with his thoughtful, low-key work, and Sweid is also strong in a role that requires acting in two languages. Lior Ashkenazi has a cameo as himself, and several well-known Tel Aviv personalities - including television host Guy Pines - turn up at the cafe'. But even if you don't recognize these celebrities, it won't interfere with your enjoyment of the film.
At times, the shifts in tone between the scenes of young Israelis wise-cracking in cafe's and Ashraf's life at home with his family are jarring and some of the plot turns feel slightly forced. But the sad truth is that the tragic moments are all too realistic. Perhaps the wrenching tug between violence and calm are not a flaw in the film but a problem with life in Israel itself. The vast majority of movies made here either focus exclusively on the political conflict or completely ignore it. Neither extreme captures the essence of Israeli life. But Fox and his co-writer, Gal Uchovsky, don't shy away from portraying the challenges we face here, being in the middle of a violent conflict and living our daily lives. Once again, The Bubble
proves that Fox is at the forefront of the recent renaissance in Israeli movies.