Movie review: Religion and redemption

The Israeli film ’Encirclements’ revolves around a Mizrahi community.

The Israeli film ’Encirclements’ (photo credit: PR)
The Israeli film ’Encirclements’
(photo credit: PR)
Hebrew title: Hakafot
Written and directed by Lee Gilat
With Lior Ashkenazi, Assi Levy, Agam Ozalvo
Running time: 98 minutes
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Lee Gilat’s Encirclements is a modest, slice-of-life family drama that is unusual among Israeli movies in that it portrays religion in a positive light. For this reason alone, it will likely be embraced by religiously observant audiences, who haven’t often seen the kind of community-centered Judaism that they experience every day depicted in a movie.
In fact, so many Israeli movies show such an oppressive side of religion that a total outsider would be mystified as to why anyone would choose to be a part of this system at all. Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void is one conspicuous exception. Like that film, Encirclements focuses on the life of a family that happens to be religious rather than making religion itself an issue.
Encirclements is set in a lowincome Mizrahi neighborhood somewhere on the coast – the ocean is visible in some scenes, but no one seems to spend much time at the beach. It’s a coming-of-age drama about a 13-year-old, Aharon Ninio (Agam Ozalvo), a sensitive kid who tries to stay out of his feuding parents’ way and also keep on the good side of the local bullies. His home is a sad place, since his parents are virtually separated but still technically live together. His mother, Rosa (Assi Levy), is depressed over the six stillbirths she had after Aharon.
Bezalel Ninio (Lior Ashkenazi), usually called only by his surname, is desperate to try again. He wallows in self-pity over Rosa’s inability to have more children.
Although he makes a decent living as a plumber, he is nearly always tense and irritated. But Rosa is adamant: She won’t go through another pregnancy. Aharon is caught in the middle, wishing that they would get along but powerless to help.
When he is chosen to carry the Torah during the upcoming Simhat Torah celebrations – a huge honor in this neighborhood – it sets into motion a chain of events that change the lives of this family and some of their neighbors. They believe in the superstition that the boy who carries the Torah can relay their wishes to God and that their prayers will be answered. The other boys who were not chosen envy him and try to intimidate him into giving up this honor.
At the same time, Aharon finds himself falling for one of his neighbors, a girl who is so tough and strong that she would likely have been chosen if the competition were open to females. Another, younger girl, a know-it-all who provides most of the movie’s comic highlights, is the most religious person in the neighborhood and covers her hair to strengthen her faith. As Simchat Torah approaches, Aharon feels the pressure to please everyone, especially his parents, whose conflict intensifies. He finds himself in a state of crisis The movie features strong acting, especially by Ozalvo, Ashkenazi and Levy, who is very moving as the sad but determined mother. Uri Gavriel, who often plays the bad guy, is the respected rabbi, and Ya’akov Cohen is charming as an older man pining for his lost great love.
The movie gives a real sense of the life of a neighborhood. But the pacing is uneven and often slow.
It’s clear that the movie won’t end until each plot turn is resolved neatly, so it’s often obvious what is coming, and when.
Gilat is a talented director, who knows how to get the best out of the actors. It’s an accomplished debut in many ways but a bit frustrating to watch at times. I felt that with some editing, the script could have been much better, and the film more compelling. But religious audiences will connect to the movie, and I will look forward to seeing Gilat’s next film.