Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Amos Gitai. Cast: Shmuel Wolf, Simone Benyamini, Zare Vartinyan, Mohammed Bakri, Juliano Merr, David Cohen, Rim Bani, Sarah Cohen. Screenplay: Amos Gitai and Stephan Levine.
Twitter Capsule: Merging straight Biblical storytelling with modern gimmicks, Amos Gitai half-succeeds at both

Photo © 1986 Agav Films/Channel Four Films
In prolific energy and in his commitment to what he obviously intends as political art, Israel's Amos Gitai invites a term like "born filmmaker." To work this constantly and dogmatically, exploring similar ground without just repeating himself, is to give the firm impression that Gitai is doing exactly what he feels called to do. In the limited finesse and vacillating coherence of what he produces, however, Gitai's portfolio suggests something else entirely. Cinema is like a case he keeps trying to crack. Often he seems to be looking for a texture or a formal corollary for whatever historical problem is bothering him, or for the nation as a whole. Often he has multiple ideas, and his refusal to choose among them yields curious but frequently baffling results. Free Zone, for example, cannot quite elect whether sustained close-ups of the human face, superimposed images, or splintered editing offers the surest route into expressing something fundamental about Israeli-Palestinian relations. What that "something" is hovers somewhere between the inchoate and the epically obvious (e.g., these folks sure don't like each other, conflict brings out the worst in all of them, etc.). Sometimes qualities of the filmmaking that assist in one enterprise really drag another one down. The rough and extremely low-contrast photography of Free Zone, for instance, allows both images in Gitai's drawn-out dissolves to remain visible and evocatively diaphanous, but it sure loses a lot of detail and texture in those protracted close-ups.

You gather Gitai would like to be something on the order of Israel's Sokurov, living to discover some conceit or style that embodies in a communicable way his ardent but agonized feelings about his homeland. But if a movie like Russian Ark suggests the kind of destination Gitai is trying to reach, the unteachable, idiosyncratic creativity that might lead him there feels wanting. Big ideas and formal gimmicks too often dehydrate his images instead of filling them up with muscle and blood. Nevertheless, or maybe even because of how Gitai continues batting away at slightly elliptical theses, employing techniques that he imitates more readily than he convincingly inhabits them, his movies do linger. He might fall frequently short of where he seems eager to go, but the strange vehicles he devises for making these journeys are generally worth pausing over, as are the frictions or even the gaps between implied intention and final product.

Esther came relatively early in Gitai's long career of experimenting with cinematic strategies that don't quite fit his story or don't quite flourish under his hand, though this doesn't mean they pay no dividends. One thing that can really puzzle about Gitai is how quickly he can lose track of narrative while jimmying around with his gimmicks. This is only odd because of how interested Gitai seems in his narratives, and how bullishly he stocks them with blunt messages that he obviously wants us to hear. Editing is often where he stumbles, so it's canny of Esther to address both of these problems so pre-emptively, first by telling its Biblical story in such straightforward terms, and second by playing to Gitai's recurrent enthusiasm for long, unbroken shots. Maybe he knows editing isn't his strong suit, and so avoids having to do it?

For the uninitiated, since we all know what a Biblical scholar I am: Esther (Simone Benyamini) is a young, Jewish beauty who is called along with some other delectable maidens to the court of Persian king Ahasverus (Zare Vartinyan), whose gorgeous queen Vashti has begun refusing his invitations to the royal chamber. Esther's uncle and guardian Mordecai (Mohammed Bakri), correctly predicting that Ahasverus would not eagerly retain a Jewish consort, advises her to keep her heritage a secret. This counsel proves especially fortuitous once Mordecai has a bad run-in with the king's bellicose advisor Haman (Juliano Merr), refusing to dignify this venal officer's demand for public obeisance. The king feels a debt to Mordecai, because he has earlier warned Ahasverus, via his own well-placed niece, of an overheard plot against the palace and its leader. Haman, however, has stirred up the king to order the execution of all Jews throughout his vast empire, possibly starting with Mordecai, who advises Esther that only she can save them. Certainly she should not imagine that if she holds her tongue, Ahasverus would spare her. I'll skip the finer points, though they're not too complicated. Suffice it to say that Esther discloses her Jewish identity just as her besotted king's anti-Semitism is about to swell to a lethal surge. Carnal obsession wins out over race hatred, but rather than simply call off Haman's murderous war on the Jews, the king actually encourages Mordecai and his people to retaliate violently against their would-be antagonists. They decline Ahasverus's other suggestions—for example, that they kill women and children, and confiscate their victims' money and property—but they sure do take him up on the offer of murder without penalty. The results, which Gitai leaves offscreen, are a bloody mess. Nuclear reactions of "Well, you started it" ring out over the next two millennia.

From what I can tell, Esther neither adds nor omits anything major in relation to this tale, which Gitai expresses in highly distilled, almost ritualistic form thorugh a series of static tableaus. Sometimes the action speaks for itself, but more often an unnamed beggar-narrator (Shmuel Wolf) intrudes at the edges of the frame, facing the audience to report the gist of whatever event or exchange the other actors are somnambulistically enacting. These images are blocked and vividly colored like Byzantine paintings, furthering that impression with lenses that bring foregrounded faces incredibly close to the viewer, and correspondingly push the rear-ground action far to the back, while still flattening the overall image into an exaggerated sense of two-dimensionality. Despite the occasional motif of characters approaching the camera from a far-off point, or heading toward a remote horizon that equally suggests the traversing of great distances, you mostly watch Esther as you might tour a series of illustrated panels or gallery paintings. The majority of the time, though not always, these fall on the right side of the line between polychromatic beauty and tinselly kitsch.

That said, these frames repeatedly encompass cars, car horns, crowd noises, garments, props, and other elements that embed traces of contemporary life within this otherwise unadventurous, flatly acted telling of Esther's tale. The chummy narrator is the only person on screen who disrupts the etherized atmosphere, in tone as well as visual presentation. For a long while, viewers who don't know where the story is headed may struggle to reconcile what Gitai is up to with these rather trendy touches of mid-80s postmodern pastiche. They're subtle enough that they can lend quick charges of mystery or surprise to the impassive framings, but Gitai demonstrates neither the humor nor the contrapuntal wit about these time-out-of-joint flourishes that, say, Derek Jarman did in contemporaneous films like his Caravaggio. Nonetheless, the images, shot by Henri Alekan (La Belle et la bête, Wings of Desire) have sufficient texture without the creative anachronisms to prop them up, which is sometimes what they seem to be doing. The inference too often is that Gitai is name-checking a dominant aesthetic of his day rather than thinking his own way through it, although it is true that Esther might feel too flat if they weren't there.

This impression of a dull or diminished point of view is upended by the final act, and perhaps too obviously so. Gitai concludes with the disgraced Haman being tied up and prepared for his imminent execution by Mordecai and his righteously enraged army of Jews. The act is cheered by the extras in period garb, but is also robustly applauded by a crowd of actors, largely children, who come rushing into the frame, dressed in contemporary street clothes, waving their fists and encouraging the killing. Esther's odd mise-en-scène suddenly becomes more rationalized and also more flat-footed as a way for the film to connect the story and its dénouement to contemporary standoffs, painting the Jews as victims and vulnerables of longer standing in their homeland, but also as having acquired a swift, over-eager taste for retributive violence. If we have missed this moral of Esther's story, the Where's Waldo narrative bobs up from the bottom edge of the shot to make sure we've got it. This over-deliberate observation of the blood on everyone's hands feels earnestly motivated, but I'm sure it's less powerful than it would have been to cut on the long shot where Haman is shrouded on the executioner's platform. The deadpan visual style leaves the question open as to whether Esther as a whole sees Haman's fate as an instance of just desserts, or as a woeful perpetuation of bloodthirst that needed to be curtailed before it cycled out of control, or as both. I might have preferred an open provocation to debate over Gitai's unmistakable broadcasting of his sternly pacifist, seeing-both-sides conclusion. Granted, he has tipped his hand well before this moment, with those inserts of the charred, sputtering, trash-strewn ground of the modern landscape; cleary Gitai sees no winners emerging from this account. Given that Esther's story has been appropriated as both a justification for and a counsel against Israeli militarism, there's a little bit of ironic charge to Gitai seeming to offer such an unslanted, even prosaic take on the narrative only to reveal the vehemence of his own stance against violence on either side. He comes across not as a dogmatist but as a dispassionate filmmaker who lets the story more or less tell itself, even though that's not altogether true as an account of his method.

Not content to conclude with one half-powerful, half-belabored conclusion, Gitai offers a second one, by way of a 10-minute traveling shot that follows each of Esther's six principal actors, one at a time, as they successively take turns walking in the same direction, frame-right to frame-left, away from a village I took to be the primary filming location. As each of these five men and, finally, the actress playing Esther speak to us in voice-over, the camera draws temporarily closer to their faces and then suddenly withdraws, all while keeping pace with the strides of the closed-mouth actors. These out-of-character monologues address more or less obliquely the different actors' reasons for taking the film, their feelings about their characters or the Book of Esther, and how these have been conditioned by the performers' own backgrounds as, in different cases, a Hungarian Jew, a Jew raised in Cairo, a Moroccon raised in Israel, an Armenian, an Israeli Arab actor committed to non-violence, and a child of high-ranking Jewish and Arab leaders in the Israeli Communist Party. (The last description refers to the actor Juliano Merr, appearing here as Haman, who was murdered earlier this year by a masked Palestinian.)

Like a lot of Gitai's gambits, this one feels more ostentatious than virtuoso. I'm not sure what light it sheds on Esther, which has already made clear its own feelings about the continuing two-way strife between Israel's Jews and their Arabic neighbors, both within and beyond the contested borders of that country. The impressive continuity of the shot itself threatens to make a bigger impression than what the actors have to say, and Gitai makes a strange choice by ending on Benyamini's account, one of the most truncated and elliptical in the group. Or perhaps he means to call attention to the relative quiet of Esther's own voice within the tale that passes under her name? She functions more as an emissary than as a volitional agent, and she's in many ways an unexpected metonym for a tale in which Ahasverus, Mordecai, and Haman arguably play more decisive roles—mediated through her voice and her elaborately "cleansed" body, but never fully opening up her perspective. So in this sense, not uniquely among Gitai's devices, the initial awkwardness of the documentary finale turns out to provoke some pertinent, resonant questions about the filmmaking up to that point, even if there might have been richer, defter ways of unpacking those same ideas. Gitai is more of a dogged student and relentless practitioner of cinema than a fluent speaker and agile negotiator. Still, even when he stutters or flaunts his affectations, you cannot write him off as having nothing to say, or deny the peculiar albeit uneven fascination of how he chooses to say it. Grade: B–

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Some viewers are bound to have problems with what seems like Gitai's crude, rigid technqiue and the unambiguous messages that the film imparts, at least by the end. Others will find Esther unusually respectful of the Biblical story it aims to dramatize, and creative in both its small- and large-scale choices about how to make the narrative vivid and relevant in moral, political, and audiovisual terms. Both sides will have a point, and I'm always excited to see a movie that I cannot quite anticipate people's reactions to, even among moviegoers I know well. As I have said, originality is rarely Gitai's forte, but I can't imagine anyone else recombining borrowed elements in quite this way or in conjunction with this subject, and I can only assume it made an impact in Israel. It deserves to prompt conversation, if not quite as rich a conversation as Gitai might intend, and even if not all of the talk is favorable.

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