Ahed’s Knee is both a cathartic battle cry against government censorship and a sensitive, nuanced take on art and identity from director Nadav Lapid. The auteur started writing the film in 2019 as a way to talk about his country and the way it was changing in the wake of a new regime. It’s an emotional, chaotic and harrowing depiction of Israel in a particular time and place, and it illuminates everything wrong with the current state of society.
Lapid brings a sharp hostility, as well as a strong sense of reflexivity to the film. The audience inhabits the life of Y (Avshalom Pollack), a young director who has more than a few similarities to Lapid’s off-screen persona. He’s in the middle of casting a new project about a woman who was shot by a government official through the kneecap–the title is a clever spin on Eric Rohmer‘s Claire’s Knee. There’s a close-up of her knee in reference to Rohmer’s film, though Lapid is about as far from Rohmer as Jerusalem is from Paris. You’d have better luck drawing parallels between falafels and croissants than you would Claire’s vacation and Y’s business trip.
When Y arrives in Aravato to attend a screening of his previous movie, he meets the Minister of Culture, Yaholom (a never-better Nur Fibak), who grew up in the surrounding desert. She hands him a form that limits the topics he’s allowed to discuss at the screening, which is how things get dicey. Y wants to touch on his next project, but he can’t say anything that would make Israel look bad. Like a Russian journalist reporting on Ukraine, he can either go with the flow or speak out and risk being banned.
Free speech is non-existent in this country, where artists are abused, punished, silenced and otherwise destroyed, with the end-goal of terminating other trains of thought in the name of Fascism. Anger courses through the movie, but there are also elements of sublime poetry. Shai Goldman’s cinematography is rich, textured and head-spinning, as a handheld camera twirls around a mallet of madness. Aviv Aldema’s music alternates between enhancing and diffusing the tension on screen. As Y slips into a flashback of his military days, Rage Against the Machine blares over a sweaty, drug-fueled mosh pit. When he fades into a daydream, Bill Withers’ Lovely Day gives us a break from the action.
Ahed’s Knee is a film that captures the whiplash of one man as he’s thrust into a life of artistic castration. Lapid digs into the political details of this conflict, instead of hinting at them around the edges. In doing so, he crafts an astonishingly personal argument for creative freedom, as one can’t help but wonder if this will be Lapid’s last film in Israel. The story is so confrontational, the entire endeavor feels like the work of someone who doesn’t care if they get exiled or blacklisted. Lapid lets it all hang out, even if, as movie depicts, it could mean he’ll be on the next plane to Paris.