‘The City’ is a dazzling Israeli rap opera

The movie isn’t just showing off its cleverness, although if it were, it would be understandable. Instead, it’s using the whole noir/rap package to create and critique a canvas of Israeli society.

A SCENE from ‘The City.’ (photo credit: Daroma Productions/Misha Pletinsky)
A SCENE from ‘The City.’
(photo credit: Daroma Productions/Misha Pletinsky)

It’s so rare – and so refreshing – to discover a truly original, beautifully made, and extremely witty movie that it’s a challenge even to describe Amit Ulman’s The City, which opens on July 6 in theaters around Israel. 

When I was invited to a screening of this film, which is a rap opera in Hebrew, I went with zero expectations. I didn’t know that Ulman’s neo-noir, black comic, musical tale of a cynical detective had been coming alive for over a decade as a theater piece, created by the Incubator Theater, which is run by a group of actors who studied at the Nissan Nativ Acting School in Jerusalem.

But as I sat down in the sold-out auditorium to see it and noted the enthusiasm of audience members, I learned that the piece has a legion of fans who saw it on stage. They were eager to watch the screen version and as the film unspooled, I understood their enthusiasm. 

From the first frame, the look of the film made on what I imagine was a very limited budget, was perfect, a blending of every Raymond Chandler movie adaptation with Blade Runner. It captures the alienation of a modern-day Israeli city, its towers, and its crumbling slums, better than so many earnest dramas, and also shows the city’s energy and sensual side. It looks like Tel Aviv, but it’s a mythologized version of the city. The story is told through the eyes of Joe, its sad-sack Philip Marlowe-type hero, who is played by Ulman. He runs an office with his partner, Jack (Jimbo J, aka Omer Havron), who he has a needling rivalry with.

The plot

The plot gets going when a beautiful, mysterious nightclub singer named Sarah Bennett (Moria Akons) comes to see Joe, worried about the disappearance of her sister. As Joe and Jack investigate, things get out of control quickly and they must fight gangs, corrupt police officials – especially the menacing Inspector McMurphy (Alon Neuman) – and the nagging suspicion that Sarah is not who she claims to be.

 Tel Aviv skyline (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tel Aviv skyline (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

All signs point to Menashe, a master criminal who terrorizes the city, as being behind a series of murders. It’s all told in rap and song, with 15 musical numbers and a dazzling number of puns. The story and script are a hip-hop Chinatown crossed with a touch of the Marx Brothers and even Cole Porter. 

Even native Hebrew speakers will likely find it challenging to parse all the puns and get all the jokes, but it’s great to have too much wit when most movies are so dull. The humor is playful. At one point, a kind of Greek chorus describes all the horrendous crimes Menashe is responsible for and leaves the worst for last – the reality TV show, Wedding at First Glance. 

But the movie isn’t just showing off its cleverness, although if it were, it would be understandable. Instead, it’s using the whole noir/rap package to create and critique a canvas of Israeli society. Characters from just about every facet of Israel show up, from street thugs to clubgoers to, of course, the ultra-Orthodox. Everyone gets their moment as the story zigzags wildly through its 73-minute running time. But it’s no accident that Ulman has chosen a film noir story to create a portrait of contemporary Israel because the noir genre always showcased the corruption that made evil especially rotten. When those who are meant to protect the innocent can’t be trusted, you need to be as crazy as Joe to try to right all the wrongs around you. 

While it isn’t a one-man show, it’s an impressive showcase for Amit Ulman’s talents. In addition to directing, co-writing, and starring as Joe, he also co-wrote the music. The other composers, who should all take a bow, are Omer Havron and Omer Mor; and Mor was also the musical director. Ulman is in almost every frame and exudes the brash confidence and intense cluelessness of every noir hero. His performance brought to mind Elliott Gould as Chandler’s Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, in which the tropes of the 1930s and 1940s were ingeniously updated for the 1970s. Ulman shares Gould’s relaxed quality, singing his lines as if they were just occurring to him at that moment. The supporting cast is very good and a number of well-known singers and actors drop in, among them Edan Alterman. 

There have been Israeli movie musicals before, but there hasn’t been one that was so successfully filmed, in a long time, nor can I remember anything this original. I’m going to pay it the highest compliment I can: I’m planning to see it again.