Something is rotten in 'Wonderful Place'

Israel is a house of horrors and woe to any unsuspecting foreigner who winds up on our shores.

What a Wonderful Place - ** Directed and written by Eyal Halfon. Hebrew title: Ezeh Makom Nifla. 104 minutes. In Hebrew, Russian, English and Tagalog, with Hebrew and English titles. With Uriel Gavriel, Evelyn Kaplun, Yossi Graber, Avi Oria, Yoav Hait, Raymond Bagatsing, Marina Choif, Evelin Hagoel, Mymy Davao, Dvir Benedek, Chedpong Laoyant At the end of Eyal Halfon's What A Wonderful Place, which won the Best Picture Ophir Award last week, a lovely Thai princess who has just arrived in Israel steps out of her limousine, looks at a view of the Negev and says, "What a wonderful place." I'm not giving away anything when I tell you that the cheap irony is that we have just seen 103 minutes that are anything but wonderful, as Israelis rape Russian prostitutes, beat Thai workers, cheat on their spouses, gamble compulsively, berate their children, commit suicide and - you get the idea. Israel is a house of horrors and woe to any unsuspecting foreigner who winds up on our shores. Now that you've read the previous sentence, you might as well skip the movie. Because although there is much truth to the film's depiction of abused foreign workers (a cause definitely worthy of cinematic attention) and alienated Israelis, the film juxtaposes these two themes in a superficial and uninteresting way. In the process, several good performances and occasional well-conceived scenes are wasted. The film also suffers from the disease that once infected nearly every Israeli movie. Let's call it "group-itis." Instead of taking the trouble to create one or two characters in depth and then build a film around them, writer/director Halfon tells three loosely interlocked stories and features a huge cast, insuring that most characters will be underdeveloped and, consequently, forgettable. There's Zeltzer (Avi Oria), an overweight farmer in the Negev, whose land is being worked by Thais. Isolated, the only friend he has is one of his Thai workers, Vissit (Chedpong Laoyant), whose dream is to get a member of the Thai royal family to visit Israel to raise workers' morale. Zeltzer's wife (Evelin Hagoel) cheats on him with Yoav (Yoav Hait), the local nature reserve ranger who beats and harasses the Thais for minor infractions. Yoav suffers with his elderly father, Mr. Aloni (Yossi Graber), an angry man who constantly berates and belittles his son. Mr. Aloni is cared for by a Filipino, Eddie (Raymond Bagatsing), who has a compulsive gambling habit that dismays his wife (Mymy Davao), also a caretaker for the elderly, who dreams of saving up enough to pay for fertility treatments. That plotline intersects with the story of Franco (Uri Gavriel), an ex-cop with a gambling habit of his own that has landed him in disgrace and gotten him kicked off the force. He tries, with difficulty, to maintain the respect of his family, especially his teenage son, as he works as an enforcer for an unspeakably vile pimp and gambling-house owner, known as the Boss (Dvir Benedek), to whom he is deeply in debt. As part of his duties, he helps smuggle a new group of prostitutes from Eastern Europe to work for the Boss. Although he treats these women decently, he does nothing when the Boss brutally rapes one of them. But he does feel compassion for them, which becomes apparent when he begins an unlikely friendship with Jana (Evelyn Kaplun), one of the women, who, because of a birthmark that really doesn't look that bad, is barred from seeing clients and must clean the apartment. This is difficult for her, for as much as prostitution repels her, she needs the money for her daughter back in Russia. Protective of her, he takes her out to the beach and she ends up teaching him to swim. Although this is a too-obvious metaphor for freeing his spirit, it is effective. The scenes between Franco and Jana are by far the strongest in the movie and not only because no one gets beaten or raped. Uri Gavriel and Evelyn Kaplun are two of Israel's best actors and it's a treat to see them work together. Kaplun hasn't had such a good role since she starred in Jana's Friends in 1999. Maybe if Halfon had focused on just these two characters, he could have created a memorable story. Unfortunately, as soon as things between Jana and Franco start getting interesting, the film shifts back to one of the weaker storylines. Yes, abuse of foreign workers in Israel is rampant. But a just cause isn't enough for a compelling movie. James' Journey To Jerusalem, directed by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, made the point much more subtly, memorably and effectively, because James was a real character, played by the brilliant Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe. James was so much more than a poor, downtrodden stereotype to be knocked down like a punching bag. Directors like Halfon, or Amos Gitai in his similarly themed Promised Land, seem to be focusing on the abuse of foreigners not so much because it is a crime that must be stopped, but to show another way in which Israelis are disgusting oppressors. It's likely that Halfon has genuine compassion for these unfortunate foreigners in Israel, but he would have done more for them by really getting inside their heads and not just portraying them as helpless victims of ugly Israelis.