Movie Review: A Thousand and One sides

A complex look at the intersection between art, emotion, family and legend.

nuzhat 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nuzhat 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nuzhat Al-Fuad Drama (110 min.) Hebrew title: Nuzhat Al-Fuad. In Hebrew with English titles ☆☆☆☆ Watching the latest film by legendary Israeli director Judd Ne'eman, Nuzhat al-Fuad, which is showing for the rest of March and into April at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, is a fascinating and frustrating experience. It's fascinating because it's a complex look at the intersection between art, emotion, family and legend and offers no pat answers. It's also fascinating to see some of Israel's best actors getting a chance to show what they can do, including Muhammad Bakri (who has spent more time in recent years behind the camera, directing political films that have caused enormous controversy, including Jenin Jenin), Yael Hadar, Merav Gruber, Oded Leopold and a newcomer to films, pop diva Efrat Gosh. The frustration will come into play for viewers who prefer a linear narrative and who don't have the patience to sit back and let Ne'eman play his hand. He directs in a leisurely way that will entertain those who don't mind watching a movie in which they never show for sure whether one of the main characters is dying or not. Although Nuzhat Al-Fuad has a much wider scope, it is similar in mood and style in some ways to Danny Lerner's Frozen Days, which also took contemporary Israel and turned it into a confusing, fantastic and often frightening place. Although the movie defies a conventional plot summary, it focuses on two characters, both young women, who work together. Odelia (Yael Hadar) is a successful, married woman who writes for a soap opera. She has a difficult relationship with her hypercritical father (Muhammad Bakri), a celebrated writer, and is tormented by the loss of her mother, who committed suicide. Some of the most memorable dialogue in the film comes from a poem she writes to her late mother, lines that everyone who has ever lost someone to suicide should hear. The second woman is Tamara (Efrat Gosh), the actress on Odelia's soap. She is angry and impulsive, ignoring her mother, in a parallel to how Odelia seeks her father's approval. Both women find themselves pregnant, but react very differently. Odelia, who is delighted, becomes depressed when she miscarries, while Tamara decides she isn't interested in motherhood and has an abortion, over the protests of her boyfriend. While in the hospital, Tamara is diagnosed with leukemia and much of the movie is concerned with her odyssey as she copes with the disease. But it's never clear whether her character is really ill or whether this is a plot turn Odelia has invented in the depths of her depression. All of this is interspersed with songs and stories from One Thousand and One Nights performed by Bakri, Gosh and others, that both spoof the melodramatic storyline and heighten it. Ne'eman, 72, who was honored with the lifetime achievement award at the Haifa Film Festival in 2006, has run his career in an eccentric way. He started out making highly praised documentaries and feature films which dealt in large part with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as Paratroopers (1977) and Fellow Travelers (1983), then made what the few who have seen it consider to be a work of great brilliance, and one which certainly turned out to be prophetic, Streets of Yesterday (1989). Streets told the fictional story of a right-wing extremist who assassinates the prime minister of Israel when he proposes talks with the Palestinians. The film, which was made in English because Ne'eman received international financing for the project, received many scathing reviews from critics who considered it so unrealistic as to be delusional. After the killing of Yitzhak Rabin six years later it turned out to be tragically ahead of its time. Ne'eman, who was never able to get financing for the film to be made in Hebrew (at first because it was considered so unrealistic as to be marginal, and later because it was seen as uninteresting once such an assassination had actually taken place), stopped making films. A physician, the director also studied math, physics and theater and served as head of the film department at Tel Aviv University. Among a certain small but devoted circle of Israeli movie lovers, there was great curiosity to see what Ne'eman had finally decided to say when Nuzhat was shown at Haifa the year he won his award. And that devoted circle of admirers won't be disappointed. On the contrary, they will find much to admire and enjoy in Nuzhat, as well as a great deal to argue about, since so much is left open-ended. While I have to admit that I am usually in the majority of viewers who don't have patience for pretension and non-linear inquiries into the nature of art, I was charmed by this film and may actually see it again, in order to catch the nuances that I didn't grasp on the first viewing. It also made me think about artifice and creativity in a way I usually don't take the time to, and left me wanting to pick up One Thousand and One Nights, which I haven't looked at in years. Ne'eman has said in interviews that he knows few will be able to appreciate Nuzhat, but he should take comfort in knowing that for those few, he has made a very fine film.