"Alila," the title of the new film by Israeli director Amos Gitai, translates from the Hebrew simply as "plot." But the story and even the characters turn out to be less interesting than the overview it gives us of the way Israelis live now, its portrait of a dislocated society where despair rumbles beneath the surface of everyday life.
Gitai, whose recent films include "Kadosh" and "Kippur," is a veteran Israeli director who's been examining his country's psyche for nearly 20 years. The Israel he reveals is a surprisingly polyglot place, where undocumented Chinese workers do construction work and a Filipino woman who speaks no Hebrew works as a housekeeper.
Gitai and co-screenwriter Marie-Jose Sanselme, working from a novel by Yehoshua Kenaz, set the story in an apartment house in a working-class area of Tel Aviv, a kind of run-down Grand Hotel where different characters with conflicting agendas find themselves thrown together.
Gabi (Yael Abecassis) and her married lover, Hezi (Amos Lavie), for instance, use their flat exclusively for their obsessive sexual relationship. A couple who see each other only in bed, they follow intimacy with a bracing dose of bickering, often about Hezi's fanatical insistence on anonymity and secrecy.
The noise of their coupling irritates Holocaust survivor Schwartz (Yosef Carmon), who just wants some peace and quiet. Also keeping him awake is the noise of construction. An illegal building is going up on this building's parking lot, financed by a policewoman with political connections.
The most interesting couple in the building are no longer a couple. Mali (Hanna Laslo) lives with her young lover, Ilan (Liron Levo), while her ex-husband, Aviram (Lupo Berkowitch), who supervises the illegal construction by those illegal Chinese, lives in a van parked just outside. All they have in common is their son, Eyal (Amit Mestechkin), a soldier on leave from the army who may not go back.
The interaction between father and son is "Alila's" most intriguing. Aviram is the film's only patriot, the only person to remain invested in the idea of Israel. He's completely shocked when he hears Eyal, representing a younger generation, say he doesn't care what happens to the country. Yet even Aviram recognizes that in today's Israel "everybody is out for himself. It's not like it used to be."
Director Gitai clearly has artistic ambitions for "Alila." Rather than have the film's opening credits printed on the screen, Gitai reads them aloud himself. And he works with cinematographer Renato Berta to craft a distinctive visual look for the production, shooting each scene (there are some 40 of them) in one continuous take.
The film's drawback, and it is a serious one, is that few of its characters wear very well. The more we see them, the less they involve us and hold our interest, a situation not helped by the bombastic, theatrical style of acting a few of the performers have felt free to employ.
What does continue to be of interest is the film's examination of the country's state of mind. Israelis are shown to be hustling and confrontational, always ready to get angry and jump down one another's throats, a situation that the threat of terrorism, referenced in radio broadcasts and conversations, makes only worse.
As to the country itself, Israel is portrayed as a nation with no moral center, where self-interest is the only thing anyone believes in. "It's just business" seems to be the mantra of the moment. Despite its title, "Alila" is a film more adept at conveying emotions than events, emotions that turn out to be unsettling and unhappy.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Scenes of intense sexual activity
Lyn Shiao Zamir...Linda
Released by Kino International. Director Amos Gitai. Producers Amos Gitai, Laurent Truchot, Michael Tapuach. Screenplay Amos Gitai and Marie-Jose Sanselme, based on a novel by Yehoshua Kenaz. Cinematographer Renato Berta. Editors Kobi Netanel, Monica Coleman. Costumes Laura Sheim Dinulescu. Production design Miguel Markin. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Exclusively at the Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.