Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Other Israel ’09: Jaffa

Jaffa is a truly diverse Israeli city, where Jewish and Arab citizens coexist in close, if uneasy proximity. It sounds like the perfect environment for a drama of forbidden love. Such a romance does indeed blossom, temporarily at least, in Keren Yedaya’s Jaffa (trailer here), which plays at the 2009 Other Israel Film Festival following its high profile Out-of-Competition screening at Cannes.

Tawfik and his father Hassan know their way around a car engine, so they get along reasonably well with the Jewish owner of their garage, Reuven Wolf. The boss’s petulant son Meir is a different story. Resentful of his self-absorbed parents, he constantly focuses his anger on Tawfik. At least the Arab mechanic gets along with the boss’s daughter Mali—too well in fact. Furtive lovers, Mali and Tawfik are planning to run away together to marry and raise the baby she now carries.

Will Wolf and his shallow wife Osnat accept Tawfik as a son-in-law? Probably not, but events will intercede before that question can be fairly answered, when Tawfik finally gives Meir the fight he has been spoiling for. Suddenly he and Mali are no longer Romeo and Juliet, tragic though their affair might be.

In Jaffa, Yedaya slathers a layer of Arab-Israeli social conscience atop of a three hanky melodrama. Unfortunately, Mali is a deliberately weak romantic heroine, to an extent that taxes the audience’s sympathies. Yes, we understand she desperately craves the love and attention of her parents, yet initially cannot compete with Meir’s acting out. Still, her complaint character is quite frustrating from a dramatic standpoint. Dana Ivgy does what she can in the part, but Mali is just a hard character to embrace. By contrast, Mahmoud Shalaby shows a vital screen presence as Tawfik, while Hussein Yassin Mahajneh’s memorable supporting turn as Hassan is touching yet dignified.

A strong sense of place permeates the entire film, as the city itself emerges through Avi Fahima’s production design as one of the most interesting characters in Jaffa. The Jewish and Muslim influences intermix in an exotic mélange. Frankly, the Jewish Wolf family and their Muslim workers even resemble each other, requiring social context to distinguish one from the other.

Boasting several strong performances, Jaffa is an engaging drama deeply rooted in the title city, but it is periodically hampered by a problematic protagonist. While imperfect, it certainly reflects the complexities of contemporary multi-ethnic Israel, making it an appropriate selection for the Other Israel Film Festival. It screens Thursday (11/12) at the JCC in Manhattan (as part of the opening night gala), Saturday (11/14) at Cinema Village, and next Tuesday (11/17) 92 Y Tribeca.