Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rooftop Films ’10: Sweet Mud

Someone once said something about a village. Dvir would disagree. He witnessed first-hand the pernicious influence of his Kibbutz’s petty social pressures on his mother’s already fragile psyche in Sweet Mud (trailer here), director Dror Shaul’s pointed assessment of the Kibbutz system, which screens for free this coming Sunday night as part of Rooftop Films’ summer 2010 season.

Prior to the 1980’s, child-rearing was a communal responsibility in Kibbutz communities, an arrangement Mud describes as indeed socialistic in its opening titles. Dvir would clearly prefer a more traditional family unit. He has a loving relationship with his widowed mother Miri, but is not able to give her the time and support she needs. Hope seems to be arriving from Switzerland when her lover-by-correspondence arrives for a visit. Stephan turns out to be a gentile much older than she, but he was the former Swiss judo champ, so at least he has that going for him.

Much to his surprise, not only does Dvir like Stephan, he even starts envisioning a future for them as a family. However, his hopes are crushed by an unfortunate set of events involving Avram, the Kibbutz’s cretinous bully. Indeed, with his older brother leaving for military service and his mother’s always tenuous mental health further deteriorating, Dvir finds the utopian community a cold, heartless environment.

Rare among Israeli films, Mud could be interpreted as a critique of Israeli society (or at least the pre-1980’s Kibbutz) from the right. Shaul definitely presents a system that rewards the worst among them, including Dvir’s severely judgmental grandmother, while sacrificing its most sensitive members and undermining family relationships.

Though Mud is often ideologically provocative, it still offers traditional coming-of-age story elements. In fact, some of the films strongest scenes involve Dvir and his first sort-of girlfriend Maya. Yet, it is the caustic depiction of the Kibbutz’s closed social circle, in which the annual distribution list for Dvir’s Grandmother’s preserves signals who is in or out of favor, truly defines the film.

Shaul handles the dramatic material with great sensitivity, but Tomer Steinhof does not prove himself to be a particularly expressive young actor as Dvir. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a talented supporting cast, especially including Henri Garcin as the sophisticated and humane Stephan. Nicely produced, Avishai Avivi design details all look perfectly period appropriate and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid’s wide angle shots of the Kibbutz’s lush green fields should translate well to Rooftop’s outdoor screen.

An intriguing depiction of the downside of communal idealism, Mud is a somewhat daring programming choice for Rooftop Films and their co-sponsoring presenter, the Consulate General of Israel in New York. A bit uneven, but definitely worth seeing (particularly for free), it screens on the pier in Kip’s Bay this coming Sunday (6/20).