Saturday, January 23, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Ultimatum

How good a friend is Israel to America? Despite having one of the best military forces in the world, they honored America’s request that they not return fire when Saddam Hussein started bombarding their country with scuds during the first Gulf War. While America was concerned about the sensibilities of the Arab state members of the coalition, Israelis had the Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads. Living with that fear and stress from constant missile attacks severely strains the relationship of one French expat couple in Alain Tasma’s Ultimatum (trailer here), which screens at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Jewish Museum and the Lincoln Center Film Society.

Luisa is trying to enjoy her New Year’s party, but her boyfriend Nathanael is being a moody pill. However, everyone is really a bit on edge, because the January 15th deadline for Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait is drawing close and of course nobody expects him to comply. Stores cannot keep duct tape and survival kits in-stock, but Israelis still try to go on with the regular routines. For Gil and Tamar that means preparing for the imminent arrival of their first child, whereas for Luisa and Nathanael, it involves a predictable cycle of fighting and making up.

Eventually, the fifteenth comes and goes without incident, but just as an uneasy calm settles, all the fireworks start. Of course, the birth of Tamar’s baby coincides with the start of the bombing two days after the deadline. Meanwhile, the intense emotions of the first round of scuds might draw Luisa and Nathanael closer together, but then again probably not.

The biggest problem with Ultimatum is that it makes it nearly impossible to root for Luisa and Nathanael as couple—quite the contrary, in fact. Jasmine Trinca projects genuine warmth and likability on-screen as Luisa. However, Gaspard Ulliel’s petulant Nathanael just drags down every scene he is in. Still, there is some nice supporting work in Ultimatum, particularly that of Miryam Zohar as Mrs. Finger-Mayer, the tragic elderly neighbor whose presence reflects the contrast between Luisa and Nathanael through their very different responses to her.

Despite the characters’ frequently annoying behavior, Tasma keeps the picture moving along relatively well. He is most successful at capturing the tenor of that time in recent Israeli history marked by watchful pre-war waiting. Ultimately, it also offers a glimpse into the indomitable Israeli spirit that carries on in the face of adversity (though like much of contemporary Israeli cinema exported into America, it takes several potshots at the government’s treatment of Arab Israeli communities).

Ultimatum has its moments, conveying a good sense of what it was like in Israel during the first Gulf War. While Trinca’s lead performance is quite impressive, it often undercut by a problematic central relationship that taxes viewer patience. Still, over all it is an interesting if uneven film that provides insight into the recent Israeli experience. It screens during the NYJFF at the Walter Reade Theater this coming Thursday (1/28).