Monday, April 02, 2018

Eran Riklis’s Shelter

It is impossible to claim the civilized world is winning the war on terrorism when Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s ruling coalition. Frankly, most of the West now follows the “Obama Doctrine:” go easy on Hezbollah to curry favor with their Iranian masters. Israel still fights the good fight and it will continue to protect those who fought with them. Mona is a particularly sensitive example. As the ex-mistress of a high-ranking Hezbollah terrorist/Lebanese government official, she provided extensive intelligence to the Mossad. When she was exposed, her handlers smuggled her out of the country and into a Hamburg safe house. It will be Naomi’s task to protect her while she recovers from plastic surgery, but her assignment will be considerably more dangerous than promised in Eran Riklis’s Shelter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

This will be Naomi’s first field work since a devastating personal tragedy caused her to take an extended leave of absence. It is supposed to be an easy way to get back into action, so initially, she is not even supplied a gun. It will be her job to masquerade as a nurse, tending to the bandaged Mona while she recuperates from plastic surgery. Eventually, she will be resettled into a new life, with a new identity. Yet, there are things Mona has trouble letting go, like the son still held in the custody of her very former lover, Naim Quassem.

Of course, there is friction between the two women at first, but respect and eventually friendship slowly but steadily develops between them. Not surprisingly, it turns out Quassem still holds a grudge against Mona. Quelle surprise. As Mona bonds with her charge, her instincts become hyper-aware of the danger swirling around them.

If you want to understand why the Mossad is the most successful intelligence agency in the world, watch Shelter. They protect their assets instead of burning them. In contrast, the German BND comes off looking pretty bad and it is rather clear our agencies would not have acted much differently. Riklis’s handling of Mona’s motivation for working with the Israelis is also smart and satisfying—it is deeply complex, yet profoundly simple.

It should be noted Riklis has bent over backwards to be sensitive to the circumstances of Arab Israeli women (who chose to political identify with the era of the British Mandate of “Palestine”) in previous films, such as The Lemon Tree. Indeed, empathizing with a strong Middle Eastern woman like Mona necessarily involves a critical rejection of militant terrorists like Hezbollah.

Israeli Neta Riskin and the Iranian-born, Paris-based Golshifteh Farahani (who has obviously given up all hope of returning home until there is a decisive regime change) are quite extraordinary together. Riskin is icily reserved, but clearly conveys how wounded and vulnerable Naomi is inside. Frankly, Farahani’s performance is genuinely brave in many ways. Arguably, she is just as fragile (if not more so), yet she vamps up the silk robe and surgical bandages better than even Bette Davis could have in her prime.

With its main characters confined to the claustrophobic flat, Shelter definitely shares a kinship with the classic films of Hitchcock and Polanski, but it engages with wider geopolitical issues. Frustratingly, it is likely to be overshadowed by Brad Anderson’s Beirut, but it is a vastly superior film. In fact, it is the best espionage-counter-terrorism film of the year thus far, and Riklis’s best since The Human Resources Manager. Very highly recommended, Shelter opens this Friday (4/6) in LA, at the Laemmle Town Center 5, Monica Film Center, and Ahrya Fine Arts.