Sunday, September 05, 2010

JFFD ‘10: The Loners

Israel is a tiny country surrounded by enemies committed to its destruction. By necessity, the IDF has become pound-for-pound the most effective fighting force in the world. To maintain discipline, breaches of conduct must be dealt with quickly but justly. Inspired by an actual insurrection within an Israeli military prison, Renen Schorr’s The Loners (trailer here) examines a case of justice that was more swift than thorough without engaging in political cheap shots. Currently playing the festival circuit, it screens during the upcoming Jewish Film Festival of Dallas.

To be fair, the IDF had good reason to be upset when the automatic rifle used in a terrorist attack by Hamas is traced back to Sasha Bluchin, a Russian born soldier recently accepted for officer training. Suspicion also naturally falls on his only friend Glory Campbell, a fellow Russian who happened to have access to the armory. While the system might have been hot to convict them, the Russians did not offer much of a defense, reluctant to admit the embarrassing truth (though it is basically what we suspect from the get-go).

As soon as the Russians arrive in the military prison, the IDF starts maneuvering to get them out. If they simply accept a discharge they can be transferred to a vastly more comfortable civilian prison—one with televisions in the cells. However, the two Russian soldiers insist on appealing their sentence. In the meantime, the warden, Sergeant Galperin, does his best to make life miserable for them. The tough-as-nails Campbell tries to protect the weaker Bluchin, but with their situation looking ever more hopeless, he resorts to an act of desperation, taking control of their cell block in an act of mutiny.

Of course, Campbell’s coup cannot possibly succeed in the long run. As a result, a tragic air hangs over Loners, with the real suspense coming from the precariousness of the Russians’ position. The hard-nosed but humane General Ben Aroya truly wants to avoid bloodshed, but not all heads are as cool as his.

If you ever wanted to see what an Israeli military prison looks like, Loners is the film for you. Frankly, it is just as drab and depressing as any government compound. Yet the grimy details of design team Ido Doley and Benny Arbitman feel scrupulously authentic. In truth, the brig does not like a chamber of horrors. Yes, it is hard and unpleasant, but surely Israel’s harshest critics would want her military transgressors consigned to such an environment.

First time actor Sasha Avshalom Agrounov deservedly won Israel’s Academy Award for his intense debut as Campbell. A steely presence, he keeps viewers off balance with his quick fuse and ambiguous affection for his countryman. In contrast, it is hard to buy Anton Ostrovski’s Bluchin as a soldier, much less an officer candidate. Not so Tzahi Grad, who memorably conveys both the military bearing and fundamental decency of Aroya in a small but critical supporting turn.

While Schorr has been sharply critical of the incident that inspired Loners, he clearly privileged the film’s story over his own sense of outrage. As a result, it is a fairly meaty and complex morality play. For those in the DFW area, it is definitely worth checking out when it screens Tuesday after next (9/14) at the Jewish Film Festival of Dallas, which kicks off next Saturday (Saviors in the Night and Seven Minutes in Heaven are also highly recommended). It is also available for viewing in New York at the Israel Film Center, but advance reservations are required.