Avi Nesher’s latest movie, Image of Victory, is a great anti-war epic, both powerful and exhilarating.
It takes the audacious step of telling the story of the Battle of Nitzanim during the War of Independence from the points of view of both the Jewish residents and soldiers at Kibbutz Nitzanim and a journalist from Cairo and the Egyptian troops with whom he is embedded.
It is a risky choice but one that pays off, and it is moving in a way that few movies ever are. You don’t walk out of it and forget it. You walk out of it wanting to think about it, talk about it and read about the true story on which it is based. It will join the ranks of such anti-war classics as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, also the story of a doomed battle.
A preview screening of the film was held at the Haifa International Film Festival (which runs until September 28) on Wednesday night in a program called “Ground-Breaking Cinema.” Not coincidentally, Nesher will also host a screening on September 25 of Paths of Glory, in the Haifa Classics section of the festival.
The Battle of Nitzanim is a little-known story of a kibbutz in the South that was pressured to hold the line against Egyptian forces and eventually, wildly outnumbered by Egyptian troops, surrendered after many of its residents were killed. It was seen by some – including then-army official and poet Abba Kovner, who is a character in the story – as an ignominious defeat, and for that reason is not as well known as many other stories from that war.
The story is anchored by two extraordinary characters, both of whom were real figures. Amir Khoury portrays the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who became a newsreel director when he covered the War of Independence, tasked by a producer who was pressured by generals to provide “images of victory” for King Farouk.
Heikal, a 24-year-old movie buff, saw this as an opportunity to create great cinema, but whenever he felt he had captured the truth of a war in which the Egyptian side suffered many casualties, he was told to somehow create military propaganda out of the story.
Khoury, who appeared in Fauda and is an acclaimed stage actor, gives a compelling performance and emerges as a full-fledged movie star: Whenever he is on screen, you cannot look at anyone else. He also plays Heikal in a framing device as a much older man who is angered when the Camp David Accords are signed and thinks back to 1948. “You see the enemy as a regular person and it does something to you,” he recalls.
The heroine at the center of the story, Mira Ben-Ari, is self-assured, reckless, sexy and soulful, but above all, courageous, and is brought to life beautifully by Joy Rieger in the performance of her career. This is her third collaboration with Nesher – she starred in his films Past Life and The Other Story – and she has grown with each role. Rieger seems to have been born to play Mira, who is as tough and aggressive as any of the men, but always feminine, a young woman who is a mother, wife, lover and warrior.
Mira has a young son and has fallen out of love with her earnest husband (Elisha Banai). The other women are understandably envious of her beauty and boldness, while the men are in love with her. Rieger turns this bundle of contradictions into a believable and very appealing character, who may well become a feminist icon once the movie is released.
Nesher is known for creating great ensembles in his films, and Image of Victory is no exception. His brilliant screenplay features a gallery of characters that are quirky, memorable and very real. The kibbutz residents are a gloriously mixed bunch, some of whom are Holocaust survivors, like Ziggy (Adam Gabay), a pianist from Germany who creates lively jazz improvisations. Others have come from Latin America, including two devoted cousins (Meshi Kleinstein and Eliana Tidhar).
Among the other actors who give outstanding performances as kibbutz residents and the soldiers from a ragtag group of freed prisoners to guard it are Tom Avni and Yadin Gellman (who seems poised to become the next big heartthrob). Neta Roth is wonderful as a blunt Eastern European who is tough on the prisoners/soldiers.
On the Egyptian side, Ala Dakka, another Fauda alumnus, plays the very committed leader of the group of fighters with whom Heikal is embedded and gives an intense performance. Daniel Naaser is a young recruit who meets the love of his life in a village where the fighters are training.
Army officials and bureaucrats on both sides push the characters to face off against each other. All of these officials are given screen time to make their cases in scenes that bring to mind Jean Renoir’s famous line from The Rules of the Game: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everybody has his reasons.” The suspense builds as the movie hurtles towards a devastating climax.
The description of the plot may make the movie sound heavy in a way that it is not. From his first movie, The Troupe, Nesher has always been drawn to stories about groups of young people, filled with romance, sex and comedy, as well as drama, and that is true here. There is always a danger in war movies that the personal stories of the characters will pale in contrast with the battle scenes. We have all seen those movies where a soldier takes out his girlfriend’s picture and talks about how much he loves her and we know that is a cue he is about to be killed.
But Nesher avoids all those clichés. These characters are real and passionate, which makes the tragedy that much sadder when their lives are cut short.
Three years ago, the Nesher family suffered its own tragedy when Nesher’s son, Ari, was killed in an accident. While there is no need to know that in order to love this movie, it does seem that Nesher is driven to convey the horror and sorrow of the loss of young lives. When the sides face off in battle, you are filled with a desire to see these scenes resolved with no loss of life whatsoever and, because the characters are so vivid, you mourn each death almost as if it were someone you really knew.
The production design is at a level once only dreamed of in Israel and the scenes of Cairo on New Year’s Eve as 1947 turns into 1948 are spectacular. The stylish cinematography, especially in the battle scenes but also throughout, tells much of the story visually. Tom Oren has contributed original music in ’40s-style that gives the scenes great energy, and Randy Kerber co-wrote the beautiful score with him.
Just as Rieger seems to have been born to play Mira, Nesher was born to tell this story. In his mid-twenties, he took command of the Israeli industry during the late ’70s with two movies that have become classics, The Troupe and Dizengoff 99. He went on to tell a controversial story of Lehi fighters, Rage and Glory, in 1984, then left Israel for over a decade. When he returned in the early 2000s, he helped to revive the film industry, making six of the best movies over the past 20 years, including Turn Left at the End of the World and The Matchmaker. He is the rare director who was successful in his youth and is making even better work more than four decades later.
Image of Victory is not so much a political movie as an existential statement about the price paid, quite literally, for the image of the title. Image of Victory is the crowning achievement of Nesher’s career and it is the rare movie that may change the way you look at the world.
In more than two decades of professional movie reviewing and even more of movie-going, it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. You will leave the theater filled with love and a desire to live life more fully.