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Rite What You Know

Time of Favor, the first feature by 33-year-old Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar, is a flawed but engrossing thriller. Highly atmospheric, it gets its charge by dramatizing religious millennialism in a region that is the world epicenter of irrationality.

That the terrorists are in this case Israeli makes this overly conventional movie feel both more familiar and more exotic. (It's also why its New York release was delayed from late September.) That the perspective is an insider's gives it unusual credibility. Time of Favor, a local blockbuster that last year swept Israel's equivalent of the Academy Awards, opens with three high-spirited observant Jews scrambling through a maze of underground catacombs, bathing in a subterranean pool, and finally stopping to pray. A shock cut reveals them only a few hundred feet from the Dome of the Rock—the holiest Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, inconveniently located atop that sacred locus of Jewish longing, the Temple Mount.

Jerusalem remains a golden presence throughout the movie. The city itself, however, is largely the province of Israeli security police, and Time of Favor mainly takes place in a Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank. It's a self-contained world, nestled amid the barren hills of the spectacular Judaean moonscape and populated by devout young followers of the broodingly charismatic Rabbi Meltzer. (The religious leader is played by veteran filmmaker Assi Dayan, son of Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, cast long ago opposite the young Anjelica Huston in her father's hippie allegory, A Walk With Love and Death.)

A Rorschach test for the viewer’s sympathies: Dayan and Tinkerbell in Time of Favor
photo: kino international
A Rorschach test for the viewer’s sympathies: Dayan and Tinkerbell in Time of Favor

Details

Time of Favor
Written and directed by
Joseph Cedar
Kino International
Opens January 18

Italian for Beginners
Written and directed by
Lone Scherfig
Miramax
Opens January 18

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A Rorschach test for the viewer's sympathies, Rabbi Meltzer hunkers bearishly over his pulpit, soulfully glowering up at his impressionable acolytes and suggesting that someday (soon) they will be able to pray on the Temple Mount. To that end, perhaps, the rabbi's other concerns include the formation of an elite army unit of "national religious" recruits, just like the all-Druze or -Bedouin companies, to be led by his follower Menachem (Israeli matinee idol Aki Avni). Cedar is a yeshiva-educated, NYU-trained, modern Orthodox Jew, but Time of Favor has a Freudian undercurrent. Politics and even religious fervor are secondary to forbidden love. The movie pivots on the unacted-upon mutual attraction between the handsome, hunky Menachem and the rabbi's strong-willed, thick-haired daughter, Michal (played by the Tel Aviv writer and erstwhile wild child who calls herself Tinkerbell).

Adding an Old Testament brother-against-brother complication, Rabbi Meltzer has decided to marry smoldering Michal to his prize student, the nervous, sickly Pini (television comic Edan Alterman). Time of Favor handles this romantic triangle—quadrangle, if we count the controlling rabbi—with brusque understatement. In a remarkable erotic scene, Menachem and Michal (who, except for one fleeting glimpse, is always well-covered from her neck down to her shoes) meet by night in a half-built house. Although not even seated close enough to touch, they play a game in which the shadows of their hands, cast by flashlight, seem to clasp and make love.

A movie of robust solemnity, casually staged religious rituals, and generally tight framing, Time of Favor practices a kind of tunnel vision that's accentuated by the deliberate absence of Palestinian characters. The settlers see only what they want to see. Enthralled by their rabbi's sense of destiny, the settlement thrives on a mixture of exaltation and self-aggrandizing claustrophobia. As Michal complains when a guilty Menachem unconvincingly sings the song of Pini's genius: "It's pathetic, everybody idolizes everyone here."

Direct and unwavering, Michal constitutes a one-character rejection front—she may seem more sullen temptress than devout daughter of Israel, but she's as adamant and compelling a figure as her father. (No delicate beauty, Tinkerbell sets her stubborn jaw and fixes her would-be suitors with deep-set eyes.) Michal hates the settlement; frustrated as much by Menachem's indecision as her father's rule, she's tough enough to simply pack up and go. (Later, the actress has a touching solo when, having left home for a dormitory in Jerusalem, she prepares and prays over a solitary Shabbat meal.)

Cedar is familiar with the particular nationalist religious milieu that nurtured Igal Amir, assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, and there is a sense in which Time of Favor, six years in the making, is a coded response to Amir's crime. (Like more than one intellectual firebrand before him, Pini asserts that "we are going to put history back on its proper course.") Time of Favor is one of the few Israeli features made from a religious point of view, and with the movie's four principal characters all sympathetically played by well-known secular performers, the casting has an abundance of subtext. Cedar originally pursued Israeli-born Natalie Portman for the part of Michal, but he has done at least as well by casting the self-invented Tinkerbell against type.

Although the would-be terrorist Pini remains the least developed character and the closest to a caricature, Time of Favor is relentlessly honest in representing the mutual mistrust between religious and secular Israeli soldiers, and the potential civil war between uncompromising idealists and grim pragmatists. Pegged by Israeli security forces as a "suicide attacker," the naive Menachem suffers a terrible humiliation—although one can only imagine his fate had he been an Arab suspect. The scene packs a greater wallop than the subsequent melodramatic twists, seemingly lifted from Rebel Without a Cause, which send Time of Favor quietly over the top.

The movie's buildup may be bigger than its denouement—Cedar's producer evidently cut a final shot that would have upped the emotional ante—but Time of Favor nonetheless remains an effective piece of filmmaking. More than that, it seems utterly faithful to the imaginative life of its fantastic locale. Where else—except perhaps in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan—could a lovesick, jealous bookworm hope to trigger World War III?


A confirmed film festival crowd-pleaser, Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners is a funny, relationship-driven ensemble piece that takes the chill out of the Danish winter with a snuggly blanket of humanism.

Scherfig's third feature is the first Dogme film to be directed by a woman, and it's by far the tendency's most benign example. A youngish, recently widowed, Maserati-driving pastor (Anders W. Berthelsen) takes over a diminished congregation in a drab Copenhagen suburb and, amid a flurry of introductory scenes, falls in with (and, ultimately, helps sort out) a crowd of mildly eccentric, somewhat vulnerable thirtysomething singles. Four of the movie's six main characters are taking Italian lessons at a community night school—the remaining two principals are Italian, albeit played by Danish actors. (To the degree that the movie has a subtext, it might be that these "new Danes" have brought a welcome Mediterranean passion to a less hospitable clime.)

This shaggy lamb-flock roundelay, a Miramax release, has been trimmed by some 12 minutes since it was last seen here at the New York Film Festival. Still, Dogmatist Lars von Trier will be pleased to know that no seasonal music or lite rock has been added to the background track; the Dogme "vow of chastity" is clearly in effect. Scherfig's handheld camerawork is moderately hectic. A few jump cuts aside, however, the greatest violence is emotional—specifically in the unhappy parent-child relations that serve to mute the film's latent sitcom narrative. Similarly, the plot's comic mix-ups and unlikely complications are naturalized by the application of the Dogme documentary aesthetic, more working-class here than usual, and tempered by a pervasive sense of mortality. (There are fewer weddings in this comedy than funerals.)

Although the performances are energetic, with plenty of drinking, there's none of the outrageous "spassing" that characterized previous films released under the Dogme imprimatur. The generous spirit of Jean Renoir has been much invoked recently in relation to Robert Altman's enjoyable, if overpraised, Gosford Park. I'd hesitate to make such claims for a tea cozy like this, but although slighter and less showy than Altman's ensemble piece, Italian for Beginners is actually closer to the empathetic Renoir world of transcendent camaraderie, where the ordinary is beatified and even villains have their reasons.

Heartwarmingly predicated on second chances and last-minute redemptions, Scherfig's human comedy is sweet and cuddly, but not nearly as sentimental as it might have been. You'd need to be a tougher cookie than me to resist the pastor's helpless, benevolent gaze (and surprise tattoo) or the Italian beauty's inexplicable but radiant devotion to a bumbling Dane a dozen years her senior.

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