Joseph Cedar

Israeli director explores Religious Zionist community to great acclaim.

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For a decade, the Academy Awards ignored the burgeoning new wave of films by young Israeli directors, which began in the late 1990s. But in 2008, Israel returned to the movies' annual evening of self-congratulation. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort was honored as one of the finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, although the Oscar ended up being awarded to another Jewish-themed film, Austria's The Counterfeiters.

Israeli cinema had already been in the limelight in the run-up to the nominations, with the country's initial candidate, the crowd-pleasing The Band's Visit, ruled ineligible because it is primarily in English. In its place, Israel selected Beaufort as its official entry, which turned out to be a fortuitous choice. 

Generally, the Academy does not like cross-country hybrids for its foreign-language nominees, so the members may have been less than thrilled to discover that Beaufort--like The Band’s Visit--also has a blemished national heritage. 

Joseph Cedar

Its director, Joseph Cedar, is indeed an Israeli, but he was born in the United States and attended film school at New York University. Cedar immigrated to Israel with his parents when he was 6, and lived in a religious community in Jerusalem's Bayit v’Gan neighborhood. He served as a paratrooper in the army before attending Hebrew University, where he studied theater. 

Cedar's NYU training is apparent in his films' sheen--a careful polish to their editing and cinematography that is associated with Hollywood. Cedar is part of a youth movement in Israeli cinema, filmmakers inspired by American standards, who nonetheless make inward-looking Israeli films.

Time of Favor

For his first two efforts, Cedar was primarily concerned with a segment of the Israeli population that remains deeply underrepresented on film: the dati-leumi or religious Zionists. Cedar himself grew up as part of the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva movement, and is one of the few religiously affiliated Israeli filmmakers.

Time of Favor (Ha-hesder), Cedar's acclaimed debut, takes place in a West Bank settlement where young men dedicate themselves to the study of Torah, with occasional breaks for military service. Two star students, Menachem and Pini, jostle for the recognition of their beloved rabbi--and his beautiful daughter. Sex, religion, and politics blend into a volatile stew, and thwarted desire leads to a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, erase the Muslim presence there, and reclaim it for a third Temple.

At times overly melodramatic and farfetched, Time of Favor does possess an organic understanding of the religious-Zionist world: its strength, its passion, and its contradictions. Where most Israeli films seem to take place among well-scrubbed secular Tel Aviv residents, Time of Favor was one of the first major Israeli films to acknowledge the resurgence of religious Zionism as a major force in Israeli life. The film won 5 Israeli Academy Awards, including best film, but some religious Zionists were offended by it, seeing it as a harsh, overblown critique of their ideological choices.

Campfire

Cedar's next film moved away from the thriller genre, but continued to hone in on his strongest suit: his understanding of, if not quite sympathy for, religious Zionism. Set in 1981, Campfire, follows recently widowed Rachel Gerlik who is planning to start a new life in a West Bank settlement along with her two teenage daughters. The problem is, her daughters have no interest in leaving Jerusalem; Esti has a boyfriend and a social life in the city, and the endearingly gawky Tami is unmoved by the religious and social posturing of the settlers.

Cedar understands the milieu, and captures their ideals, and their terrible shortcomings, with impressive potency. The same young men who shed tears at the death of Yonatan Netanyahu in the movie they watch about the Entebbe raid stand by idly as one of their friends is sexually assaulted. Their compassion for the heroic Israeli dead does not extend to the suffering of their peers.

Campfire details the intimate details of the inner lives of the settlers to an extent rarely before seen on the Israeli screen: their passions, their hatreds (teenage boys chant "Shimon Peres is a son of a bitch" while dancing around a campfire), their motivations (moving to the settlements is not only about the Bible, it's also about bigger backyards), and the damage they can cause to their own. Rachel and her daughters ultimately choose to opt out of the settlers' life, but Campfire paints a portrait both realistic and disturbing of the settlers' mindset.

Beaufort

Beaufort approaches the grand narrative of the right-wing resurgence in Israeli politics and culture from another perspective: the military. The tightly controlled narrative takes place almost entirely within literal fortress walls: the Crusader fort of Beaufort in southern Lebanon from which Israeli soldiers patrol the surrounding countryside, ever on alert for the next Hezbollah attack.

The movie takes place in 2000, shortly before the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Israel is on the defensive, and on the way out the door, and everyone--civilian and warrior, Jew and Arab--knows it. The mood is jocular but pinched; the soldiers are boys playing at war, but the consequences are real. 

From amidst the morass of relatively undifferentiated soldiers, two in particular capture our attention. The closely cropped hair and sculpted cheekbones of Ziv (Ohad Knoller) mark him immediately as the ideal fighting man: thoughtful, quiet, intense, and dedicated. Liraz (Oshri Cohen), meanwhile, is sloppily dressed, easily agitated, and clearly not from the educated Ashkenazi milieu from which Ziv hails.

Ziv is doubtful about the purpose of their presence at Beaufort. His uncle had been killed in the very same spot 18 years prior, during the Lebanon war, fighting over the same piece of land. Liraz is a true believer in the justice of the Israeli cause, and the wisdom of the Israeli leadership. If they are in Lebanon, there must be good cause.

Liraz is a more complex keeper of the flame than previous Cedar characters who represented "true believers." Unlike the rabbi in Time of Favor, or the settler leader in Campfire, there is no ugliness at his core--just a willingness to trust in the wisdom of his superiors--military and political--that is ultimately self-defeating. Because of its fortress etting, Beaufort is far more spatially compressed than either Time of Favor or Campfire, which works simultaneously to its benefit and its detriment. While even more specific in its focus than either of its predecessors, Beaufort also lacks some of their nuance found in the change of environments.

In its relentless concentration on narrow passageways and enclosed spaces, Beaufort is ultimately more like a spaceship film than anything else--think 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Alien. The Lebanese countryside, beautiful and barren, is a foreign planet, and the Israeli soldiers stationed there are hostile elements in a mysterious and ultimately dangerous landscape.

We never see any Lebanese in Beaufort, whether Hezbollah fighters or local residents. The terror is intangible, and arrives without warning. The soldiers' perch at Beaufort--the Crusader castle that has hosted invaders and defenders for hundreds of years--is ultimately only a temporary one, always abandoned for the next wave of invaders.

We never truly understand Liraz's motivations, or his beliefs. Why is he the last one to realize that the Israeli army and government may have no real purpose in their extended Lebanese excursion? In many ways, Liraz would make more sense if he, like Cedar's previous protagonists, were also a religious Zionist. Perhaps Cedar was seeking to spread his wings, desiring to show his mastery of more than one Israeli milieu. But without a proper explanation for Liraz's occasionally heroic, occasionally foolish obstinacy, the action in Beaufort seems without motivation

Time of Favor, Campfire, and Beaufort have gone a long way toward expanding the horizons of Israeli cinema. Cedar's work is the cinematic representative of religious Israel-- a once-invisible, ever-growing minority--and his first two films were an attempt to wrestle with the complexity and contradiction of the religious-Zionist movement, in all its permutations. In seeking to expand beyond religiosity, Cedar forgets his own strengths. Cedar might be better served by returning to his religious roots.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.