Israel Film Festival Review: Brothers

23 Jun

By Saul Sudin

Igaal Niddam’s Brothers opens on a beautiful field under a warm sun casting its rays down on a man and his herd of sheep. You can tell from this initial image how blessed the land is, and the shepherd, writing poetry in his journal, harkens back to biblical greats like King David. The potential has been set, much as any first shot does. But quickly, the television quality of the video cinematography becomes more obvious, and the film’s presence is reduced to the look of a soap opera. What’s more, that tone is furthered through the series of overly dramatic and unrealistic portrayals that attempt to delve into the ongoing debate between religion and state in Israel.

We approach this hot topic division from the point of view of the two brothers that make up the film’s namesake- Aharon (Baruch Brener), religious and living in the United States, and Dan (Micha Celektar), secular, living on a kibbutz, the aforementioned shepherd. They have not seen each other nor spoken for 25 years, and the arrival of the religious brother in Israel is an unexpected shock. As with most films that try to portray Hasidic or religious Jewish life, this one is full of inaccuracies and absurdities. Inexplicably, Aharon is not married despite being in his 40’s, claims being religiously persecuted at Columbia University of all places, and prays in a way that only exists in fantasy- where our protagonist is somehow the leader of every synagogue service he attends. Dan is a weak link, given a key role that dwindles mightily as the film progresses.

Story-wise we are held back from knowing many things for no reason at all. The motivation for the rift that separated the brothers for 25 years is kept a secret for so long that we would stop caring completely if it wasn’t so obvious. When the revelation comes late in the film, the only question still remaining is why the scene didn’t play out an entire act earlier. Similarly, just because Aharon doesn’t feel comfortable telling his brother why he has come to Israel at the outset doesn’t mean that the audience needs to dwell on the same mystery, especially when progressing to his mission results in the film’s best scenes. What director Igaal Nidaam and his screenwriters seem to miss is that first act reveals are part of the setup of the film, and don’t need to be handled like some grand mystery.

The act one reveal is that Aharon is a lawyer at Columbia University and came to Israel to defend an ultra-orthodox Yeshiva in front of the state Supreme Court. There was a government mandate that they turn over the list of their students so they can be drafted for army service, but the Rabbi and his students are protesting. This premise sets up both the best and worst scenes the film offers. The downside is that as mentioned before, the portrayal of religious life is inaccurate, even for a drama. Clothing is wrong, hair, the way that they study- the film seems like it was made by people who haven’t spent enough time in a real Yeshiva. From the first scene where we meet the Rabbi and his students, they are shown to be nothing more than a rabble of hooligans. When the Rabbi addresses them, it is written in a way that one would portray a maniacal scoundrel in an action film. Through this use of dialogue, the filmmaker is subtly making the religious side the villains from the very moment they are introduced.

The film is at its best when it follows the path of courtroom procedurals like Law & Order- we are introduced to the two sides of the case and what they represent. The prosecutor, Shelly, (Orna Pitussi) is convincing as a strong and dedicated civil servant trying to do right by her country. She views the bible-quoting Aharon as an invader as much for being religious as being a foreigner. Their back and forth in the courtroom is fascinating, but what develops between them outside the courtroom is both cliché and nonsensical. Thematically the film tries to manage the argument of religious versus secular government on a grand scale where it permeates everything and everyone. This is especially true when it involves a twist ending that comes out of nowhere. But if it had merely stuck to the courtroom, it would have been much stronger for not claiming to be subtle and just had our characters battle it out man to man.

Overall, Brothers feels like it was made by an amateur filmmaker showcasing the type of editing or camerawork that you would see in a first film. The cinematography is on-par with cheap cable television, not a big screen presentation. The music stings at the exact moments when we are being told that something is dramatic and we should pay attention, and voice over narration pops up out of the blue only when awkwardly convenient to tell us something that isn’t being communicated by the acting. The performances, especially from Micha Celektar as the secular brother Dan, often feel stale and like caricatures of real people. Who was this film made for, and what does it hope to achieve?

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