One of the more ironic aspects of Israeli cinema is that 90% or so of its features dealing with Palestinians or Israeli Arabs depict the Israeli government's mistreatment of the same. (And, of course, 100% of Palestinian productions assume a similar stance.) But then, Israelis have always been their own harshest critics, which is meant as great praise. Their media in general, when it comes to the open expression of all opinions, puts our own to shame.
Eran Riklis, an Israeli director of such critically acclaimed offerings as The Syrian Bride (2004) and Cup Final (1991), adds to this celluloid phenomenon with the superbly microcosmic Lemon Tree, a portrait of the Middle Eastern situation with all of its bitter fruit on display.
Locale: the green line border between Israel and the West Bank. Salma (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian widow in her forties, lives alone, eking out a meager living harvesting lemons from an orchard in her backyard, one her father had planted decades earlier. But she doesn't ask for more. Her children have left her behind, as has romance. She is, in fact, expected to live the rest of her life in such a manner that honors her late husband, whose forbidding headshot glares from an otherwise barren wall.
So all is going well for Salma, especially with her nonexistent expectations, until Israel's defense minister moves next door. Suddenly, her livelihood, the orchard, is considered a threat to the minister's life, a hiding place for suicide bombers or worse. The trees must be cut down. Eventually, Salma finds a young lawyer to take on her case, but have the Israeli courts ever sided with a litigant arguing against the military?
Abbass's starkly moving performance and the film's closing shots make this metaphor for the unsolvable unforgettable.
(Available on DVD 11/3/2009)
At the 47th New York Film Festival, Oct. 7-11, the Hindi auteur Guru Dutt will be celebrated with a retrospective of eight films he either helmed or starred in, along with a documentary on his life.
Dutt -- having committed suicide at the age of 39, back in 1964 -- and his films are rather overlooked today as compared to Satyajit Ray and his oeuvre. Yet Time back in 2005 included Pyaasa amongst its top 100 films of all time. It's up there with Taxi Driver, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Star Wars.
Clocking in at a rather lengthy 146 minutes, this black-and-white work is a moving mixture of Bollywood song and dance, plus Christ parable. Plot: Vijay (Dutt), a down-and-out poet, is looked upon as a wastrel by his brothers and as a non-talent by local book publishers. Why can't he just write about love instead of focusing on the destitute and the injustices of a society "that takes away a man's passion"?
"If you're a poet, I'm a donkey," one tradesman opines.
Only his mother, a masseur friend, and a beautiful prostitute believe in him. However, when Vijay is mistakenly believed to have been run over by a locomotive, his poetry is suddenly taken to heart by the nation, and everyone wants to cash in on his fame. So much so that when Vijay is "reborn," found nameless and incarcerated in a mental institution, those who could prove his identity turn out to be Judases.
Pyaasa is well acted, with catchy tunes by S.D. Burman and astute direction by Dutt. You can almost see why Film Comment's Jacob Levish insisted Dutt was "the most dazzling talent of Hindi cinema's 'Golden Age' in the Fifties . . . A tragic hero, a misunderstood genius."
Anna Freud quoted her dad as stating, "Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, in contrast to men who are incapable of pure love and must at all times mix love and hate in their object relations."
That might just be the thematic thread connecting all of the films of Portugal's most important current cultural export, João Pedro Rodrigues.
In his startling, in-your-face exploration of sexuality, O Fantasma (2000), Sergio, its young hero, a garbage-man, gets overtaken by his libido and slowly turns canine, sniffing away at possible conquests. By the end of the film, he's lost all signs of humanity and is even chasing rabbits. It made my Ten Best List way back then.
Now with To Die Like a Man, Rodrigues has become almost every critic's darling, and his film's one of several must-sees at the New York Film Festival. Everyone's indeed asking, "Is this our new Almodóvar?" (Dogs, by the way, play a major part here, too, including a mutt called Bum.)
The heroine of the tale is an aging drag performer, Tonia (an impressive Fernando Santos), whose young, drug-addicted lover, RosÃ¡rio (Alexander David), robs and sells her gold rosary beads when he's not designing her stage costumes and begging her to have a sex-change operation.
Doctor: "You make a cut in the penis just as you'd do a sausage."
Tonia also has a son who's gone AWOL after murdering a fellow soldier he just screwed or was screwed by. It's hard to tell. It was a nighttime copulation.
As you can see, the old girl has her hands full. Besides the men in her life, and the life in her men, she's worrying about younger talent replacing her at the club where she lip-synchs. Oh, and then there's her infected, leaking left nipple.
This might sound a bit depressing, and at times it is a teensy bit. But often when least expected, Rodrigues opts for the highly comic and then the surreal, creating what might just be the trippiest film released this year, with several of the most delicious transvestites around being truly absurd. Who knew? Drag and Death, a match made in heaven. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently starring in Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories, which is still in production. In the fall, he'll be teaching "The Arts in New York City" at City College. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, The Advocate, and dozens of other publications.