Assi Dayan in 'Finita la Commedia.'.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With Assi Dayan, Hagar Tishman, Aki Avni.
Assi Dayan – one of Israel’s leading actors and a director with a knack for choosing challenging material – led a dramatic, often chaotic life marked by conflict with his famous father, defense minister Moshe Dayan, and struggles with drug abuse, before his death in 2014.
But given the many contradictions in his life and career, he might have seen the irony in the fact that his final role would be in the light, offbeat comedy Finita La Commedia, directed by Victor Braun and Shachar Zefania. That the film is inspired by the light comedies so popular in Europe – hence its classic, Italian name – is also fitting, since he flirted with an international career. Following the success of his 1967 film He Walked Through the Fields, in which he played a decidedly earnest role as a combat fighter who returns to his kibbutz, Hollywood noticed his extraordinary good looks and seductive presence – kind of a subversive, slightly Bohemian Clint Eastwood – and he got to play the male lead in John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death, an epic period drama meant as to make a star out of Huston’s daughter, Anjelica. Reportedly, he was cast as one of Tevye’s sons-in-law opposite Topol in Fiddler on the Roof but the part was recast when Dayan could not master English quickly enough. So, he returned to Israel and had a long, distinguished career, taking roles in iconic Israeli dramas such as Beyond the Walls and Operation Thunderbolt; becoming a key player in Joseph Cedar’s early films Time of Favor and Campfire; and eventually creating the lead role of the psychiatrist on the groundbreaking TV drama BeTipul (In Treatment).
In later years, drug problems and health issues kept him from working much, and in Finita La Commedia, which completed shooting in 2014, he doesn’t look well, although he gives one of his most entertaining performances. He plays an actor portraying Beethoven at the end of his life in a biopic being shot in Tiberias in Hebrew – “Is it any less realistic than Moshe Rabbenu speaking English in The Ten Commandments?” asks the director (Guy Loel). Although the film is a look at the shenanigans surrounding the shooting, Dayan actually has some good moments as the composer, that make you think what a great career he would have had playing brilliant, gruff older men if he had lived a little longer.
The film opens with a young couple, Maya (Hagar Tishman) and Nadav (Rani Alon), high school sweethearts who work respectively as a cinematographer/assistant and soundman for a supposedly great, uncompromising documentary director, Dror (Aki Avni, who after his stint as a leading-man type about 20 years ago is proving himself to be a natural in comic roles). Dror has designs on Maya, who worships him, while Nadav looks on suspiciously. Dror is shooting the Making Of... documentary on the Beethoven biopic, work he takes deadly seriously. He still commands respect in the film world, although he hasn’t made a film since the legendary film he completed just after school. Still, Dror makes it clear that he considers himself far superior to the director and much of the comedy is about how unhinged Dror is becoming, as the film alternates among a romantic farce and a movie-set parody with the shadow of a tragedy, as Dror totes a gun for no clear reason.
But it’s Dayan who dominates the movie and although the biopic in which he is performing is meant to be kitsch, his scenes as the dying maestro command respect and invite thoughts of his own troubled life, so different from the composer’s, of course, but which still inspire regret over what could have been. As the farcical plot gets sillier, Dayan’s scenes have an even deeper impact.
Finita La Commedia is an odd send-off for a great actor and cultural figure. There is a scene where Dayan is interviewed about his role by a writer from Ynet and he talks about playing Beethoven – slurring his words slightly and speaking enthusiastically about his attraction to art and high culture – that is revealing and sad and will stay with you longer than any of the comic moments.