THE LONERS (ISR)
Directed by Renen Schorr. Written by Schorr, Moshe Zonder and Guy Meirson. Hebrew title: Ha Bodedim. 92 minutes. In Hebrew and Russian, with Hebrew titles. Check theaters for English titles.
The claustrophobic world of a military prison is the setting for most of Renen Schorr's The Loners, a wrenching and beautifully acted film that tempers its bleak vision with moments of black humor.
Based on the true story of a 1997 rebellion in an Israeli military prison led by a Russian-born inmate, the film uses this backdrop take a close look at discrimination against Russians in Israel. The movie's plot also provides a platform for examining how easy it is for anyone who doesn't fit in to ruin his chances for everything he cares about in one unwise instant.
Although there are moments of redemption throughout, they are brief. This is a realistic film that paints a picture of a bleak, unforgiving world, where it is almost impossible to do the right thing.
The movie gets its title from the two soldiers who play its protagonists, Glory (Sasha Agrounov) and Bluchin (Anton Ostrovsky). Born in the former Soviet Union, they haven't been in Israel long enough to lose their accents. Here without their families, they are chayalim bodedim, literally, lonely soldiers. But they aren't really lonely. They've made it, they're in the elite Golani unit and now, in spite of their birthplace, lack of family and accents, they're going to make it in Israel. As Golani soldiers, they're encouraged to be arrogant and feel part of the elite.
Then, it all changes over night. Bluchin makes an impulsive decision to visit a prostitute and while he is with her, his gun is stolen. When he and Glory take a gun from the unit's supplies to replace it, they are accused of stealing weapons to sell them. Bluchin is ashamed to tell how his gun was actually lost and they are both court martialed without being given a chance to mount a real defense.
In the military prison where they are sent, an army social worker (Rotem Zussman) urges them to sign a paper that will allow them to serve out their sentences at a civilian prison. "You can have television there, activities, air conditioning," she says. But they won't budge. They still take pride in being Israeli soldiers. They aren't thugs or criminals and are determined to get a chance to appeal their sentences. If they explain it all, they think, surely they'll be allowed to continue their military service.
But when the authorities renege on their promises, Bluchin, who comes from a distinguished Russian military family, is utterly crushed, feeling he's let his father down. Glory, though, is furious. As Bluchin watches incredulously, Glory, who has no family and has nothing to lose now, takes hostages and essentially closes down the prison. Dazed, Bluchin begins to help his crazed friend, trying to believe Glory that this will secure justice for them.
This is the basic story and watching Bluchin follow Glory deeper into the grave he is digging for both of them is incredibly sad. There is something almost beautiful in the depth of Glory's anger at the system that he once believed in and identified with so completely, but that has now let him down.
The story is dramatic and well-written, but it's the performances of the two leads that make this film soar. First-time actors Sasha Agrounov and Anton Ostrovsky are phenomenal. Agrounov deservedly won the Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar, for Best Actor for his performance as Glory, beating out several more experienced actors. The two also won a Special Mention at the Jerusalem Film Festival. They bring out the tenderness and depth of the main characters' friendship, and it's the intensity of their bond that makes the movie more than a simple "issue" film about discrimination against Russians in Israeli society. Rotem Zussman is also very convincing and appealing as the efficient little social worker who is taken hostage.
Director Renen Schorr has had an unusual career. He made the acclaimed Late Summer Blues - a film about high school students during the summer before they are drafted into the army in 1987 - before taking a 21-year hiatus from directing to found the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. For years, this story fascinated him, and thanks to the fiery performances from his two lead actors, especially Agrounov, he's made an impressive and memorable film.