No family fun for ‘Zion and His Brother’

The director and his cast try to convey passionate feelings, but the film will not draw you in.

‘Zion and His Brother’ 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Zion and His Brother’ 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the main character in an Israeli movie is named Zion, and when the film has a title as portentous as “Zion and His Brother,” we know we are being not very gently prodded to draw some of kind political metaphor from the story.
But let’s skip the analysis and agree that this unconvincing drama is too unfocused and clichéd to say anything new about the political situation. We can think about Cain and Abel or many other biblical brothers. But if the teen protagonist were named Yossi or Alon, there would be no need to bring up politics at all in what is what used to be called a kitchen-sink drama, a gritty film about working-class life and adolescence.
There have been a number of such films recently in Israel, and Zion and His Brother will suffer from comparison with some of the others. It’s quite difficult not to make these comparisons, particularly because both this film and the recently released The Flood (Maboul) both feature Ronit Elkabetz and Tzahi Grad in the adult roles, playing opposite two teenage boys. But where Maboul is an intense film about a family coping with a disabled son, gracefully told, Zion and His Brother is labored and muddled.
While the film may or may not be autobiographical, the director and his cast try to convey passionate feelings, but the film will not draw you in.
If you see many Israeli movies, then the plot will sound dispiritingly familiar. Zion (Reuven Badalov) and his brother, Meir (Ofer Hayoun), are growing up in a Haifa suburb. Zion is an open, trusting kid, just the kind whose innocence is guaranteed to be crushed into the dirt by the time the end credits roll. His older brother, Meir, is more impulsive, more sensual and far more aggressive. He often clashes with their mother’s boyfriend, Eli (Grad), who owns an auto repair shop. The two brothers fight as well, and their mother has her hands full keeping them in line.
Their father is long gone.
That’s the set-up, and the plot revolves around a moment of violence the brothers are involved in, the aftermath of which affects them in different ways. There are many scenes of the brothers, alone and together, walking along desolate stretches of road, past urban decay, while the memorable Middle Eastern soundtrack plays in the background.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows was an influence on the young director, but this film just points up the artistry that Truffaut brought to his own coming-ofage story.
Israeli movies in working-class settings are rarely convincing, I suspect in part because a great many of the screenwriters and directors of these films don’t actually come from such backgrounds. I’ve often noticed, when I attend programs devoted to student films, that the young directors tend to be healthy, middle class and surrounded by proud family members, while their graduation project films are often about illiterate orphan teen moms living in abandoned buildings or homeless men fighting each other with broken bottles. The real test, of course, is not how much authenticity the director brings to the project but how authentic the finished project feels. Working-class life can present an appealing subject for a film because it may seem more intense than the lives the filmmakers know. In such films as this, or Keren Yedaya’s equally unconvincing Jaffa, characters scream and brawl. The mother (in both these films played by Elkabetz) yells at everyone to come to eat. The food doesn’t look appetizing, and no one ever seems to crack a joke.
The acting in Zion and His Brother, though, is first rate. Grad does his working-class schlub about to erupt into violence well, as he always does. Elkabetz is a luminous actress with real screen presence, but I can’t wait to see her in a film where she doesn’t sit on the toilet and yell at people.
The two young actors, Reuven Badalov and Ofer Hayoun, are both excellent, and I look forward to seeing them in their next movies.