A complex journey into our past

‘Gei Oni’ tells a story from an earlier era while celebrating a young woman’s strength.

Gei Oni 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gei Oni 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Dan Wolman. Written by Wolman and based on a novel by Shulamit Lapid. 105 minutes. Hebrew title: Gei Oni. In Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Turkish and Arabic. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Dan Wolman’s Gei Oni (Valley of Strength), tells a story from an earlier era in a straightforward, simple fashion.
But the reality it portrays is actually quite complex, giving the lie to a nostalgic, rose-tinted vision of Israel’s early history. Although the heroine of the film is constantly surrounded by people, in many ways she is very isolated, and the film tells the story of her struggle to connect to the larger community, as well as to the man she ends up sharing her life with.
Based on a novel by Shulamit Lapid, the film focuses on the story of Fania (Tamar Alkan), a young survivor of a pogrom in Russia who comes to Palestine in the late 19th century. She is not alone, but her companions don’t make her life any easier. She is traveling with her infant daughter; her brother, Lolik (Eric Yizhakov), who escaped from the Russian army but is now mentally disabled and can’t talk; and her uncle, Shura (Ya’acov Bodo), a frail, elderly intellectual. She feels responsible for the welfare of all the surviving members of her family, but after their ship lands in Jaffa, she can’t find work. The tiny amount of money they have brought quickly runs out, but she balks at the prospect of putting her brother in an institution and worries about what will become of her uncle.
There was no welcome wagon waiting for these early immigrants.
Although they survived horrors in Russia, the prospect of eking out an existence on handouts from abroad was also a scary prospect.
By chance, she catches the eye of Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi). He was a yeshiva student living in Safed who decided to stop living off charity and moved to Gei Oni, a struggling settlement on the land that eventually became Rosh Pina. The conditions there were harsh, and his wife died of malaria, leaving him with their two children. He has come to Jaffa on a brief trip to buy supplies for Gei Oni when he sees Fania. He is instantly attracted to her and asks her to marry him. There is no time for them to get to know each other.
He has to go home in just a day or two, and so she has to decide.
Yechiel has no problem taking her child and her brother, but he worries that her uncle could not survive the rugged conditions in this valley. Fania is torn. She doesn’t want to leave her uncle, but there is another reason why she feels she can’t marry. Under pressure and lacking any alternative, she agrees to his proposal, after Yechiel promises they will not consummate the marriage until she is ready.
Viewers will guess at her secret long before she reveals it to her husband, but that doesn’t make it less affecting. The drama between the couple is what is moving and interesting here. He is clearly a good man but no saint, and she finds herself in a situation – a hastily arranged marriage – that would be difficult in any case, even if she did not bring her weighty psychological baggage to it. And even if the newlyweds did not live in grinding poverty with three children in a rural area threatened by hostile neighbors.
As they struggle with angry Arabs who feel threatened by their presence and corrupt Turkish officials who try to cheat them, the film may feel familiar to anyone who has read accounts or seen films about the period. The pacing is a bit off at times and will prove too slow for some viewers.
One of the strongest elements of the film is its two lead actors, Alkan and Ashkenazi. Both are young actors who were recently acting students. Alkan, in particular, is a revelation. Unlike so many film actors these days, they aren’t recognizable from television soap operas or other films. That helps maintain a sense of authenticity, since you won’t be thinking of what else you’ve seen them in. You can just respond to their understated, natural but very effective acting.
These two will likely have major careers ahead of them. Finkelstein and Bodo are also excellent in key supporting roles.
For those with the patience to sit through the slower moments, Gei Oni will provide an interesting journey into Israel’s past.