More savage than noble

With Neveh Tzur, Liat Etka, Shira Haas. 94 minutes. Hebrew title: ‘Pereh Atzil.’ In Hebrew, check with theaters for subtitle information.

Noble Savage (photo credit: AMIT YASUR)
Noble Savage
(photo credit: AMIT YASUR)
The acting is extraordinary in Marco Carmel’s Noble Savage, especially by its young star, Neveh Tzur, who won the Ophir Award last fall for Best Actor for this role, in a competitive year. Tzur, who is adept at conveying a combination of stubbornness and vulnerability, made a strong impression in his first serious leading film role in Valley about four years ago, playing a similarly confused young man. In Noble Savage, as Eli, a teen torn between his warring parents, he holds the movie together and makes you care about a character who can be both impulsive and manipulative as he fights to keep himself and his family together. 
His inappropriately seductive mother (Liat Etka, who also gives an impressive performance) is a drug addict trying to get clean, but she doesn’t have much willpower and has always been pushed around by the men in her life. Her boyfriend, Yefet (Yaakov Zada Daniel of Fauda) is also a recovering addict who uses his 12 steps to berate Eli and stir up conflict with him. Meanwhile, Eli’s father (Alon Aboutboul), who lives nearby, is a passive-aggressive painter with a bizarre fondness for concentration-camp scenes done in a primitive style, which draws the attention of some hipster art collectors, in the movie’s least convincing subplot. 
Eli, who is heavyset and gets teased for it by the neighborhood kids, tries to engineer a reconciliation between his parents, rightly sensing that his mother’s boyfriend is his enemy. He is also trying to forge his own identity and tentatively begins a relationship with a punked-out girl from his school, Anna (Shira Haas, of Shtisel and Foxtrot, who won the Best Supporting Actress Ophir Award for this role). 
The movie, which is based on the acclaimed novel by Dudu Busi, is filled with literary flourishes that might make sense to someone familiar with the book, but in a film just seem like non-sequiturs. 
In a throwback to Israeli cinema of 20 years ago, the movie is full of scenes of people screaming at each other, their faces contorted with rage. While all that might seem “gritty” and “realistic” and all those other adjectives people like to use to describe unpleasant movies, what it really means is that Noble Savage is hell to sit through, in spite of the wealth of acting talent on display. 
It brings me back to what I call “The Bus Test.” If you were sitting near these characters on a bus, would you get interested in their conversation and draw a little nearer to listen, or would you move as far away from them as possible, so you wouldn’t have to hear it? Sadly, this film fails The Bus Test miserably, and as the confrontations escalated, I simply found myself hoping it wouldn’t be too gross when various characters bashed each other’s heads in. 
Some 20 years ago, movies like this were almost all there was to Israeli cinema. Now, after a renaissance lasting nearly two decades, when talents such as Joseph Cedar, Ari Folman, Avi Nesher, Rama Burshtein, Eytan Fox, Talya Lavie and many others have flowered, it seems sad that we have moved back to these claustrophobic stories of miserable families in and around Tel Aviv. 
Are there really families like the one in Noble Savage out there? There certainly are. But do we want to spend 90 minutes with them? Not unless we get some insight into our lives or ourselves through seeing them. But when we don’t get that, and we certainly don’t here, sitting through the story of people who can’t stop hurting each other, emotionally and physically, is simply an ordeal. 
I look forward to seeing its stars, especially Tzur and Haas, in other movies that can showcase their talents in a less painful way.