Movie Review: An engrossing biopic

‘Yona,’ the story of a troubled poet, soars.

'Yona' movie (photo credit: PR)
'Yona' movie
(photo credit: PR)
Movies about tormented poets so often turn to clichés to tell their stories that I approached Yona, Nir Bergman’s latest film, about poet Yona Wallach, with great trepidation. But my apprehension turned out to be unnecessary: Yona is the exception that proves the rule, a moving and engrossing biopic of a tortured genius that avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre.
Wallach, who died at age 41 in 1985, was an enfant terrible of the Israeli literary scene whose life and work – including erotic poetry featuring religious imagery – shocked both the bourgeoisie and the cultural elite. Watching the film, I felt a longing for a time when poetry mattered so much that it could scandalize people, just as I did seeing the movie Howl, which dramatized the obscenity trial of the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s famous work.
With Yona, Bergman (along with co-screenwriter Dita Guery) has crafted an emotionally charged drama rather than a linear autobiography. The movie opens not with Yona’s birth or death but with her entry into the literary world. Living with her mother and sister in Kfar Ono, Yona (played by Naomi Levov) stands alone in her room, rehearsing how she will introduce her poetry to the editor of a Tel Aviv literary journal she has decided to ambush. As she repeats her words to the empty room, we see and understand the mixture of bold confidence and terror of failure that marked her career.
When she asks her sister for some money, her sister wearily asks, “For another abortion?” Yona responds, “No, for the bus.” This darkly comic exchange tells us all we need to know about what Yona’s life has been like until that moment, emphasizing the fact that Yona doesn’t work hard at anything but her poetry and has no day job to provide her even with bus fare: She is daring but dependent.
While the first poetry clique she targets snubs her, she finds herself embraced by another, more rebellious group, but soon these rivals are fighting each other to publish her work.
She craves the approval of both the rebels and the literary establishment and despises herself for needing their attention and approbation. This need torments her, as does her relationship with Moked (Itamar Rothschild), a poet who sees himself as a bohemian but always returns home to his wife and baby. Although Yona has affairs with other men and with women, his rejection stings.
The movie also deals with her hospitalizations for mental illness.
In her first stay at the Talbiyeh mental hospital, a sympathetic doctor encourages her writing, and she meets Tadeuz (Tom Hagai), a young Polish immigrant who is a musician. He loves her but is ultimately put off by her unconventionality.
The movie concentrates on her growth as an artist and the crises she endures. Her mental illness, as the movie presents it, can’t be neatly categorized but both inspires her self-expression and impedes it.
Those well versed in the Israeli literary scene of the 1960s and ‘70s will either love or hate this depiction of that time, since Bergman isn’t concerned with presenting a straightforward history of the period. But poetry lovers will appreciate this look back at a time when poetry really mattered to many people.
Yona is a star-making performance for Levov, a young actress new to movies. She is in nearly every frame of the film and is fully convincing as a selfinvolved genius. She makes you feel for Yona even when the character is at her most histrionic and least likable.
Bergman’s triumph is that we do care for this woman, who is often her own worst enemy. He doesn’t portray her as a victim of a maledominated establishment but as a kind of supernova of poetic talent who would have been out of place in any era. It’s a film that is, at times, painful to watch but always mesmerizing. His earlier films, Broken Wings (2002) and Intimate Grammar (2010), were domestic dramas about troubled families, but with Yona he has taken on a more ambitious story and has hit the mark.