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MOVIE REVIEW : A Schlemiel Goes to War in 'Cup Final'

October 30, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The basic question of almost any anti-war movie is "Why are we killing each other?" And it can be asked a number of ways: devastatingly, gently, with sociocultural shadings, horrifically, sadly or even comically.

"Cup Final" (Nuart), an excellent Israeli anti-war drama set in June, 1982, during both the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the World Cup soccer finals, shifts freely among all those moods: Grim and funny, sensitive and tough, lyrical and explosive. But, at its heart, it's a piece of comic idealism. It's about the blood beneath the muscle, the smile beneath the swagger.

The movie's highly gifted young director, Eran Riklis, is, like many Israeli movie-makers, far more pacifist than his government. He sees no point to the endless conflict and bloodshed; he's not interested in stacking the deck for or against anybody. Though most of his characters are Palestinian guerrillas, played by Arab actors, he refuses to demonize them or portray them in the black-and-white action movie terms that would justify a bloody, crowd-pleasing climactic slaughter. (When blood and violence do come, no sensitive audience could possibly be pleased by them.)

Riklis' approach is more expansive, more open. He's a true liberal humanist--in the good sense of the term, not the trashy, caricaturish cliche favored by opportunistic politicians. For Riklis, just as for his central character, a hapless Jewish draftee named Cohen--who desperately wants to make it to the World Cup Finals but winds up in the hands of the guerrillas--the PLO fighters are just people: a diverse group, some likable, some not, trapped on the other side of the lines.

Cohen the good-humored semi-schlemiel, played by Israeli comic Moshe Ivgi, is the sort of classic everyman that a highly skilled comedian--like Robin Williams or Danny DeVito--can often create effortlessly: a gabby, friendly, quick-witted little clothier, who, like most soldiers, is doing his duty without any particular relish. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are all volunteers, fiercely dedicated. One is a diabetic running out of insulin; one a sadist, who continually abuses Cohen; one is Cohen's opposite number, a genial clown; two are intellectuals; and the leader, Ziad, is an Arab-Italian who, along with Cohen, idolizes the Italian soccer team.

The movie is about how Cohen and his captors come together, how they find a bond both in the hard journey they're suffering together and through their love of games. Riklis constantly draws parallels between sport and warfare: billiards, video arcades, field soccer and the snatches of the World Cup games that the travelers catch, now and again, on TVs or radios. But he doesn't hammer in the point; nor does he suggest that some worldwide, never-ending Olympics or World Cup series would eliminate global rancor and conflict. (A hard point to sell, given the violent reputations of soccer crowds.) Instead, he simply shows how similar the "enemies" really are: in background, traditions, reactions. It's a classic male-bonding film, and the extraordinary good looks of the actor playing Ziad--Muhamad Bacri--accentuates that, giving the Cohen-Ziad friendship the slight homoerotic current that often underpins buddy-buddy movies.

But "Cup Final" (Times-rated Mature, for language and violence) is neither sentimental, glib, nor sappy. Riklis and his cast--including Suheil Haddad as the clown, Salim Dau, Basam Zuamat, Yussef Abu Warda and Gasan Abbss--are so good at evoking the mood of men wearily slogging through a battle-torn landscape and so skilled at delineating and bringing to life each separate character, that they avoid most of the obvious traps of manufactured screen pathos. At the end, briefly, the movie breaks down a little, getting too rushed and perfunctory in a Beirut border scene. But it's a momentary lapse. And perhaps we feel it only because Riklis and his splendid cast have persuaded us so completely that these men and their odyssey are real, that war is not a sport, that death is not a game.

'Cup Final'

Moshe Ivgi: Cohen

Muhamad Bacri: Ziad

Suheil Haddad: Omar

A First Run Features release. Director/story Eran Riklis. Producer Michael Sharfshtein. Screenplay Eyal Halfon. Cinematographer Amnon Salomon. Editor Anal Lubarsky. Music Raviv Gazil. With Salim Dau, Basam Zuamat, Yussef Abu Warda. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (language, violence.)

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