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Middle East and Adjacent at AFI Fest

For several years now, I’ve been writing that Israeli cinema is growing up. A pox on my condescension: It’s not that Israeli movies have abandoned their preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict. They’re just less obsessive and self-serious about it, and more inclined to integrate those concerns into a broader investigation of personal and national identity. Even as Hollywood churns out terrorist thrillers, Israeli writer director Eran Kolirin’s beguiling The Band’s Visit draws gentle comedy out of an Egyptian police orchestra’s misbegotten trip to Israel to play at an Arab heritage ceremony. Played mostly by Palestinian actors, the band gets misdirected to a hole-in-the-wall development town where they’re hosted with varying degrees of good grace by local Sephardi families, among them a sexy but lonely free spirit beautifully rendered by Ronit Elkabetz (whom you may remember from another excellent Israeli comedy, Late Marriage). With its arresting powder-blue palette and gentle wit, this goofy charmer, which Sony Pictures Classics will release in December, offers the sweet credo that the road to conciliation begins not with politicking but with conversation, tea and sympathy, and a little bit of cross-cultural nookie.

That didn’t do the trick for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which rejected The Band’s Visit as Israel’s official foreign-language submission on the grounds that it contained too much English dialogue. Kolirin’s olive-branch sensibility was also lost on both the Cairo International Film Festival, which refused to show the film outright, and the Middle Eastern International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, which first invited, then disinvited, the filmmakers. One hopes they at least made room for Caramel, an exuberant girl-crowd-pleaser by Nadine Labaki, about a group of Lebanese women working out their problems of religious guilt, virginity, closeted lesbianism and menopause in a Beirut beauty salon. Though blatantly derivative of more than one frothy French comedy I could mention, the movie is a guilt-free pleasure with a lively local flavor and an impressive non-pro cast ably directed by Labaki, a ripe beauty who also stars as a young Lebanese Christian living with her parents while carrying on an affair with a married man.

In a more elliptical register, Etgar Keret, whose short stories run frequently in this paper, has made an urbane film written by his wife Shira Geffen (sister of Israeli pop idol Aviv Geffen) about a loosely connected bunch of blitzed young Israelis, lost to themselves and each other, who regroup and re-pair in every sense of that word. “I don’t like developments,” one of them murmurs dreamily. Just so: Much happens in Jellyfish, and it’s all going somewhere, but not in a straight line, and never to a foregone conclusion.

Also long on charm is Oded Lotan’s The Quest for the Missing Piece, a quasi-documentary by a gay Israeli with a German boyfriend, exploring his insider-outsider identity with an inquiry into the changing significance of circumcision at home and abroad. Narrated in the manner of a Shalom Aleichem folk tale, this tender but candid film suggests that Israelis have come some way toward confronting their own taboos about homosexuality and Germans. Whether they’ll be ready for German director Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters, a fact-based drama about a Jewish crook who’s forced by the Nazis to make fake foreign currency designed to destroy the Allies’ economies, is an interesting question. This bracing, witty movie about the moral dilemmas of an immoral Jew (superbly played by Karl Markovics) blows a fresh wind through Holocaust cinema, which badly needs it.

AFI Fest will screen The Band’s Visit on Sat., Nov. 3 at 7:15 p.m. and Mon., Nov. 5 at 12:30 p.m.; Caramel on Fri., Nov. 2 at 10 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 3 at 3: 45 p.m.; The Counterfeiters on Sat., Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 11 at 3 p.m.; Jellyfish on Sun., Nov. 4 at 9:45 p.m. and Tues., Nov. 6 at 4:45 p.m.; and The Quest for the Missing Piece on Thurs., Nov. 8 at 7:45 p.m. and Fri., Nov. 9 at 1 p.m, all at the ArcLight.


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