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'Broken' and yet trying to heal

March 12, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Broken Wings," one of the most successful Israeli films of recent years, is, like its homeland, a study in unlikely contradictions.

Both foreign and familiar, "Broken Wings" is an unashamed melodrama that brings an unmistakable texture of realism to its well-drawn characters. Though it makes no mention of the Palestinian situation that looms large in the national consciousness, it's nevertheless recognizable as the product of a culture permeated by a universal sense of crisis and loss.

The feature debut of writer-director Nir Bergman, "Broken Wings" was the winner of nine Israeli Academy Awards and top prizes at the Tokyo, Berlin and Jerusalem film festivals. It's an engrossing Israeli kitchen sink drama, a look at dysfunctional family life as it both might and might not be lived anywhere.

"Broken Wings" opens with a slow pan of a Haifa cityscape that ends showing a rock band on a roof practicing a haunting song written by 17-year-old lead singer Maya (Maya Maron) for an about-to-begin battle of the bands.

She's good, but it doesn't matter. Her mother, Dafna (prominent Israeli actress Orli Zilbershatz-Banai), has been unexpectedly called into work as a hospital midwife and a furious Maya has to skip the contest and baby-sit two younger siblings. She bicycles home in a fury, then helps her mother jump-start her wreck of a car while snapping with savage sarcasm, "I love these mother-daughter talks."

Maya may sound like the kind of sullen teen we've seen too much in various Sundance endeavors, but she's not. Because of the sensitivity of Maron's acting and the honesty of the characterization, we empathize with her to a remarkable extent. Plus she is dealing with an awful situation.

Nine months earlier, Maya's father, the man her song was written for, unexpectedly died, and she, her three siblings and their mother are barely able to cope with the aftermath. Dafna can just about manage to get to work, leaving Maya to manage her unhappy younger brother and sister, 11-year-old thrill seeker Ido (Daniel Magon) and his shy and withdrawn 6-year-old sister, Bahr (Eliana Magon). The tragedy has caused a crisis in all their lives.

Most affected of all is 16-year-old Yair (Nitai Gvirtz), once a promising prep basketball player who has dropped out of school to spend his days handing out fliers while dressed in an animal costume. No amount of "do you want to grow up being a mouse" sarcasm from his mother can dent the nihilism his father's death planted in him.

This may sound like a typical messed-up movie family, but, surprisingly, it doesn't play that way. "Broken Wings" is especially well cast, and, not always the case for an Israeli film, its members steer clear of overacting and shoving their emotions in the audience's face.

This makes for a plight that rings true, a scenario that allows individuals to fall apart in a believable way. Life is exasperating for this family and its members are continually at loose ends, frustrated by their inability to get on top of problems whose solutions feel tantalizingly out of reach. It is just life, but we see and feel how hard it is for them.

Because "Broken Wings" is sensitively done within its melodramatic contours, it makes those confines seem less artificial. And when the melodrama does get strong, and it does, when bad things happen on a dark and stormy night, we go with it rather than resisting. The film has won our trust, given some heft to its characters and involved us in their lives, come what may.

While these events could have happened anywhere, "Broken Wings" feels specifically Israeli. It shows us a culture of exasperation and irritation. Low-level hostility is the universal solvent, and people aren't afraid to let hard edges show.

And though no one in "Broken Wings" makes so much as a passing reference to the Palestinian situation, even its title implies not only a family but also a society at its wits' end. There is a sense here of things falling apart, of the center not holding, and should solutions come, we can sense they will be hard won and not easy to apply.


'Broken Wings'

MPAA rating: R, for some language, brief nudity and drug use

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter, suggestions of sexual activity

Orli Zilbershatz-Banai...Dafna

Maya Maron ... Maya

Nitai Gvirtz ... Yair

Daniel Magon ... Ido

Eliana Magon ... Bahr

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Nir Bergman. Producer Assaf Amir. Screenplay Nir Bergman. Cinematographer Valentin Belonogov. Editor Einat Glaser Zahrhin. Costumes Ada Levin. Music Avi Belleli. Art director Ido Dolev. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

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