Drama (102 min.). Written and directed by Danny Lerner. Hebrew title: Kirot. In Hebrew and Russian, some prints have English titles.
Rarely have I seen a film as brilliant, and as frustrating, as Danny Lerner's Walls. It's an exciting follow-up to his promising debut, Frozen Days (2005). Lerner has a unique talent for looking at contemporary Tel Aviv, seeing what is actually right in front of him, and then amping it all up a few notches for dramatic effect, giving everything an operatic tinge. He films it with an electric sense of storytelling and cinematic style, which gives his work an excitement akin to Quentin Tarantino's, but he's like Tarantino with a heart. Lerner also seems to have been strongly influenced by the work of the young Jean-Luc Godard. Like Godard, Lerner uses the format of a genre movie to try to tackle pressing social issues, as well as to examine the hearts and souls of characters generally seen as marginal.
The movie opens on a close-up of the heavily made-up eyes of Galia (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian prostitute in Tel Aviv. After she tries to escape from her pimp, she is brutally beaten and given a choice: Become a hit woman for the Mafia (with the promise that she will eventually get the money she is owed and her passport) or thugs will murder her daughter back home in the Ukraine - immediately. It's clear which option she will take. Set up in an apartment in a run-down Tel Aviv neighborhood, she lives an isolated life, but eventually finds a friend in Elinor (Ninette Tayeb, yes that Ninette, the first winner of Cochav Nolad, the Israeli version of American Idol). Elinor, although she seems spunky and sweet, is abused by her husband (Zohar Strauss). Elinor knows that Galia has some secret, but as they bond, Elinor has no clue that Galia is a killer. But Elinor eventually finds out, and there are no easy solutions for either of them.
The acting is superb. Olga Kurylenko, who starred in the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, is an extraordinarily gifted and appealing actress. A scene where she visits a mikvah could have been maudlin, but she elevates it to a wordlessly touching moment. It's no surprise she is starring in several upcoming American films. And who knew Ninette could actually act? If you didn't know she was a pop star, you'd never guess it from her understated performance.
But the violence threatens to derail the entire film at times. Rarely has an Israeli film that doesn't involve war been this painfully violent, as there is scene after scene of slender young women being sadistically beaten and tortured by men. The camera certainly lingers on the details to a degree that made me uncomfortable.
On the other hand, the movie uses the violent action genre format to call attention to the problems of trafficking women and domestic violence. The trafficking issue, in particular, is something nearly all of us choose to overlook on a daily basis. There are seedy strip clubs in all of Israel's major cities and anyone can spot them easily. As this newspaper and others reported in 2008, the US State Department said that "the Government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." These facts are often in the headlines, as are murders of women by men, often their husbands or boyfriends. But most of us are far more comfortable (and spend more time) discussing the Israel-Palestinian conflict than acknowledging other critical problems in our backyard.
The tone of the film is hard to read at moments, which is not necessarily bad. But in some of the scenes between the two women, the script flirts with clichÃ©. You have to give yourself over completely to their universe or you'll find yourself stepping back and thinking impatiently that the friendship occasionally seems artificial, a dramatic construct.
On one level, Danny Lerner's Walls is shock therapy for our pretense of ignorance of the outrages it highlights, and shock therapy is never comfortable, by definition. On another, it's a stylish and at times poetic look at a friendship between two women the rest of the world has given up on. But there is no question that Lerner is one of the most talented, interesting and ambitious directors working in Israel today.