Tuesday, May 10, 2011

IFF ’11: Brothers

New Yorkers might find it hard to fathom, but Brooklyn is considered to be synonymous with conservative fundamentalism in Israel. By contrast, the Israeli leftists all dutifully perform their military service, while the Orthodox seek exemptions. This leads to profound conflict within Israeli society, at least according to Igaal Niddam’s Cain and Abel tale, Brothers (a.k.a. Dan and Aharon, trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Israel Film Festival in New York.

Obviously, Dan is secular. He works as a shepherd (seriously) on a kibbutz. Long estranged from his brother Aharon, he is a bit taken a back when he receives a letter announcing his imminent arrival in Israel. However, the real shock comes when Dan realizes the man in the Orthodox garb is his brother.

Aharon is a lawyer-rabbi from a Brooklyn yeshiva, a detail Niddam emphasizes repeatedly. Per his Orthodox faith, Aharon avoids shaking hands with Dan’s wife Yael, strictly observes kosher restrictions (even the ones Dan does not know about), and does just about everything possible to annoy his lefty brother. When the cranky kibbutznik learns Aharon only came to represent an Orthodox yeshiva in a protracted legal battle regarding their students’ draft eligibility, it just slightly rankles him, particularly as the father of an IDF soldier.

Though he uses the media masterfully, Aharon quickly deduces his case is a dog and his clients are problematic, to say the least. He is not too fond of the heat either, but his budding Tracy-and-Hepburn flirtation with the prosecutor is another matter entirely. He also builds a warm familial relationship with his nephew, despite the nature of his case. Indeed, Ahron seems to be nursing the wrong sort of Jerusalem Syndrome from his clients’ perspective.

In terms of ideology, Niddam clearly sides with the shepherd. Yet, he gives all the good human drama to the Orthodox brother. Arguably, when both back-stories are revealed, Aharon clearly emerges the more sympathetic of the two. Frankly, Dan is just a moody Marxist pill for most of the film. Of course, that basically necessitates Aharon’s change of heart and eventual destruction to serve Niddam’s didactic message. Hardly ambiguous, the filmmaker argues in no uncertain terms that the ultra Orthodox movement represented by Aharon’s clients constitutes a greater threat to Israel than Islamist terrorism. This seems rather dubious by any objective measure.

Regardless of Niddam’s agenda, Baruch Brener’s work as Aharon is absolutely first-rate. He takes a caricature and synthesizes a fully dimensional character. He also develops an appealing chemistry with Orna Fitoussi as the attractive prosecutor. Both actors and their characters deserve a more nuanced film. In contrast, Micha Celektar looks awkward and essentially falls flat as Dan, ironically the more judgmental of the two brothers.

Brothers is not exactly helped by its production values either, which lend it a distinctly TV movie look (and not even premium cable, at that). Brener gives a deeply human performance, but even with a number of nice moments, the whole is rather flawed. It is definitely an Israeli film tailor-made for the Upper Westside though, so it should be a crowd pleaser when it screens again this Thursday (5/12), Saturday (5/14), and the following Thursday (5/19) at the 25th Israel Film Festival in New York.