Raging Israeli Drama Is Physical and Lyrical

This review of “Ahed’s Knee”It was first published July 7, 2021 after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

After winning the Golden Bear at Berlin for his last film, 2019’s “Synonyms,”Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapi returns to top flight festival competition with prickly intensity “Ahed’s Knee.”

There’s a Cannes connection which could stand him in good stead: His film “The Kindergarten Teacher” debuted in Critics’ Week here on the Croisette in 2014 and was remade by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who now sits on this year’s Cannes jury. She might look upon it favorably, as will festival audiences and certain art-house cinemas, though it’s unlikely a remake will be in anybody’s mind.

“Ahed’s Knee”An audition session begins in which young girls show their knees under ripped jeans, and go through various emotions for a camera as well as an unmoved casting manager. We learn that they’re trying out for the part of a Palestinian teenager named Ahed Tamini, who in 2018 slapped an Israeli soldier and resisted arrest. Footage of the incident went viral and earned her heroine status in her home state, but plenty of Israelis also supported an Israeli MP’s tweet suggesting she should be “shot through her kneecap”.

But soon the director of the intended film about Ahed — known simply as Y and is played by dancer Avshalom Pollak — is landing in a remote desert town in the Arava region to attend a screening of one of his earlier films at the local library. The trip has been organized by a young woman from the Ministry of Culture, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), who grew up in the same desert and is a fan of Y’s work.

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Y becomes agitated when he finds out he has to sign a form from the Ministry that will limit the topics he’s allowed to discuss in the Q&A following the screening. He begins to dislike Yahalom and sees her only as a tool for a fascist state. With the help of a reporter friend, he secretly plans to do an exposé on Yahalom.

“Ahed’s Knee” is a radical film for an Israeli movie — or for any movie. Y’s invective and anger against his own country is powerful and challenging and yet the movie is full of lyrical flourishes, flashbacks and musical sequences, including a car ride and dance to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”This may be filled with irony, or not.

The constant lurches in tone are deftly managed by the director so that they serve to keep viewers on their toes — Y is such a live-wire, confrontational presence that you’re never sure what he’s going to do or say next. He’s thinking of Ahed’s knee (one assumes there’s an implicit reference to the sensory memory of Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee,”Although his impulse is more political than romantic, sexual or romantic), he feels the need to work and be back in the City. He appears also to be calling his mother via voiceover and sending photos of the desert landscape to her.

He also recreates in a powerful monologue and photographs a scene from his days as a national service officer, where he and his troops were given cyanide pills if they were captured or threatened by Syrian soldiers. Claire Denis is unavoidably echoed in these high-stakes choreographed scenes. “Beau Travail.”

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The performances are outstanding and keep the film on a tightrope. Overall, though, it’s a work of robust intellectual energy and raging conflict that could come across as hectoring and even bullying. While fizzing with ideas and ideologies about cultural freedom, it’s also a very physical film, with close ups of skin — knees, toes, torsos — and the dry crunch of the stony desert.

The specter of war is never far from the film’s thoughts, even in as remote and forbidding a place as this desert — which, as a taxi driver informs us, was once the bell pepper growing capital of the world. The peppers, now lying rotting at the roadside, are a metaphor of the brutal, political poetry that a man attempts to be relevant and truthful in a society and culture at conflict with itself.

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