Pointless agony in ‘Bena’

Niv Klainer’s film about a mentally disabled boy stuck at home may cause as much anguish for the audience as for the characters.

father carries disabled son (photo credit: Screenshot)
father carries disabled son
(photo credit: Screenshot)
At one time, mental illness in movies was generally positive, even poetic: a sane response to an insane world.
Anyone who ever spent time around psychotics or people with other mental illnesses knew how much suffering was actually involved for everyone concerned, and how little poetry. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, at least in Israeli movies, and mental problems are shown to be a deep source of misery, as well as some kind of metaphor for the dysfunction in Israeli society.
Another topic, heavily mined for its metaphoric value in recent Israeli films, is the treatment of foreign workers in Israel. Niv Klainer’s Bena combines both themes for a film that will cause nearly as much suffering for the audience as for the characters.
The film, which was first shown in 2009 at the Haifa International Film Festival (and was not released for a year – never a good sign), tells the story of Amos (Shmuel Viloszni), a widower who takes care of his mentally disabled son, Yurik (Michael Moshonov), at home. Yurik’s illness is not clearly defined in the film, but the notes in the Haifa program say he is schizophrenic. In any case, he sometimes speaks clearly and shows knowledge of and interest in esoteric subjects, while at other times he is unresponsive and even violent.
Amos seems to have a bizarre job, hospitalizing uncooperative mentally ill and senile people against their will (Is this an actual profession? Don’t ambulance crews generally do this work?). It’s ironic, of course, because of his son. He refuses to consider hospitalizing Yurik but doesn’t seem to realize, as people in movies where mental illness is a metaphor rarely do, that there are actual treatments for his problem.
These treatments may not be cures, but various kinds of therapy (drug, cognitive and behavioral) could improve at least certain aspects of Yurik’s life. And if he doesn’t want to institutionalize his son, there are day programs of all kinds, as well as schools (Yurik seems to be in his late teens). But Amos prefers to keep him at home and isolated, with no routine and no stimulation – something that his work experience ought to tell him is a clear recipe for disaster.
But when Amos is hospitalizing a man, he finds what seems to be the solution to Yurik’s problems and his own loneliness: a beautiful Thai caregiver named Bena (Rachel Santillan). She is an illegal worker. But instead of turning her in, he brings her home to care for Yurik. Soon, Amos is utterly infatuated with her. But when he goes out, Yurik starts abusing her. It’s unpleasant, to say the least, to watch these men drooling over this vulnerable female foreign worker, who virtually glows with virtue. Then it turns out that Bena is married to a Thai farm worker living in northern Israel, and Amos reluctantly does the right thing and attempts to reunite them.
That’s the basic plot. You can work out the social commentary about Israel’s exploitation of foreign workers on your own – I’m too exhausted from recapping this agonizing plot to spell it out. The actors are all quite good, which is the movie’s saving grace.
Ironically, Moshonov starred as an autistic young man in The Flood, which won the Feature Film Competition at this year’s Haifa Film Festival and also won him a Supporting Actor Ophir Award. I guess it’s good to have a specialty.
While I haven’t seen that film yet, he is convincing in an inconsistently written role in Bena.
As the mother of an autistic son and the aunt of another boy with autism, though, I am very sensitive to the way mental disabilities are portrayed on film, and inevitably more disturbed than the average viewer by films that portray disabled young men as predatory. Israel can be a very unwelcoming place for the disabled, and people here often ask me, quite casually, why I haven’t institutionalized my son.
Movies that portray the mentally ill as violent, sexual molesters don’t make my life any easier.
Nor do films that deliberately refuse to show any hope or chance of progress for these young people. I hope the next film on this subject makes its characters fully human and doesn’t rely on already tired metaphors.