Take ‘Shelter’ with these two women

Shelter is fun because, like Naomi, the audience gets seduced by Mona.

‘MISTOR’ COMBINES a spy thriller and a psychological drama. (photo credit: COURTESY UNITED KING FILMS)
‘MISTOR’ COMBINES a spy thriller and a psychological drama.
With Golshifteh Farahani, Neta Riskin and Lior Ashkenazi. 90 minutes. Hebrew title: Mistor. In English, Hebrew, Arabic and German, check with theaters for subtitle information.
Eran Riklis’s Shelter is an enjoyable, suspenseful and at times moving film that combines a spy thriller and that kind of psychological drama where two women, isolated from the outside world, bond, flirt and begin to merge identities, each becoming more like the other.
These two-women movies depend on a strong cast and Shelter works because of the talent of the actresses who star in it. Neta Riskin plays Naomi, a Mossad agent who has quit after the death of her husband, also an agent, in an operation she was involved with. When her former handler (Lior Ashkenazi) comes to her with a supposedly easy assignment – to watch over a Lebanese informer in Germany who has just had plastic surgery to conceal her identity – she hesitates. We know it won’t be as simple and straightforward as he tells her it will be, but if she refuses, there won’t be a movie, so she goes.
Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), the woman she’s protecting, has some bandages on her face, but they don’t really obscure her beauty or expressiveness. Dressed in a short red silk robe, Mona is demanding, petulant and very seductive. She bosses Naomi around and Naomi lets her. The Israeli agent, dressed in drab clothes, glasses and even a cross to be inconspicuous in the quiet neighborhood in Hamburg where Mona is hidden, provides a sharp contrast to the woman in red.
You may think you can imagine where it goes from there, and some of the time, you’d be right. But Riklis, a veteran Israeli director with a long list of credits, including Zohar (1993), The Syrian Bride (2004), Lemon Tree (2008), The Human Resources Manager (2010) and Dancing Arabs (aka A Borrowed Identity, 2014), has a few tricks up his sleeve.
The film is loosely based on a short story, “The Link,” by the late Shulamith Hareven, a writer who published the story under a pseudonym and whose husband was said to have worked for the Mossad. While the thriller plot about Mona’s terrorist lover (Doraid Liddawi) and the attempts by his organization to find and kill Mona, as well as the machinations of Israeli, German and American intelligence agents, is pretty similar to many other movies, it’s the drama between the two women that makes the movie rewarding. It recalls such films as the touchstone of this genre, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as well as Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female.
Golshifteh Farahani is an extraordinary actress on her way to becoming an international star. Iranian-born, she left her home country years ago and has recently appeared in the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. She is soft spoken but has a commanding presence and turns Mona into a flesh-and-blood woman and not just a type. A speech she gives about how she has been cheated all her life is particularly affecting.
Neta Riskin, one of the busiest and most consistently interesting Israeli actresses, is best known for playing Giti, the abandoned wife, on the television series Shtisel, and has appeared in such movies as Joseph Cedar’s Norman and Nir Bergman’s Saving Neta. In Shelter, she is convincing and affecting as an all-business Mossad agent who finds herself drawn by Mona’s aura in spite of herself. Both of these roles could have been cliched, but in the hands of these actresses, they are compelling and entertaining.
During certain parts of the film, I wished that the thriller elements had been played down in favor of developing these two characters further. Naomi and her Mossad colleagues could use some lessons in spy craft from Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Russian sleeper agents in Washington on the television series The Americans, but then again all movie and TV spies could take lessons from the Jennings.
In spite of the occasional flaws in logic and familiarity of some of the plot, Shelter is fun because, like Naomi, the audience gets seduced by Mona.