Wednesday, January 18, 2012

NYJFF ’12: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

A teenaged French-Israeli girl learns you have to have a partner in peace. A young “Palestinian” man burns out on hate. They might make some small hopeful gestures, but there will be no choruses of “Kumbaya” in Thierry Binisti’s better-than-you-expect A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Tal Levine has trouble comprehending the hatred that led to a recent terrorist bombing killing a bride and her father on her wedding day. She asks her brother Eytan serving his military service in the Gaza to send a message in a bottle asking how anyone could be so hell-bent on carnage. Naim and his bitter unemployed cousins find her note, resulting in several sexually violent emails. Yet, for some reason, Tal and Naim bug each other enough to continue trading insults. Yes, eventually, they discover they are not so different after all.

Still, Naim has trouble letting go of all his deeply ingrained grievances. Simultaneously, Levine tries to live a normal high school life, but has trouble acclimating to the constant presence of terrorist attacks. Of course, the mere act of emailing with an Israeli is dangerous for Naim, whose suspicious time spent at the internet café gets him interrogated and beaten by the local Hamas militia (right, let’s put them in charge a full-fledged state post-haste).

Adapted by Binisti and Valérie Zenatti from her young adult novel, Bottle bends over backwards to show no favoritism to Israel or the so-called “Palestinians.” Both societies we are assured are held captive by the more extreme and recalcitrant elements within them. Nevertheless, it is obvious if the “Palestinians” were to unilaterally foreswear violence, the bloodshed would be over, yet every time Israel calls a unilateral cease-fire, the terror continues unabated.

Despite its dogged moral equivalence, Bottle does not have its head completely in the clouds. Levine and Naim’s relationship is significant to them, but will not bring imminent peace. Indeed, it explicitly suggests the best thing for him is to get out of Gaza.

Frankly, Mahmoud Shalabi’s Naim looks somewhat more than just three years older than Agathe Bonitzer’s Levine, but they are more or less evenly matched in terms of maturity. Bonitzer has a keen cerebral screen presence that helps sell her idealism. Shalabi is also rather intense and even dynamic as the moody Naim, convincingly charting what is a significant arc of character development, given the toxicity of his environment.

Bottle is a small film with pretensions of greater meaning, but what it does well, depicting young people learning to think for themselves under trying circumstances, it does very well indeed. Recommended not as a teaching tool, but for two nice lead turns, Bottle screens this Sunday (1/22) and Monday (1/23) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2012 NYJFF.