Here‘s a thing: an Israeli movie about a suicide bomber, and there’s not a Palestinian in sight. Time of Favor, concerning a Jewish plot to blow up a mosque on Jerusalem‘s Temple Mount, walked off with six Israeli academy awards and blew away the box office among audiences you’d think would be sick to death of bomb threats, and who, in any case, routinely shun homegrown films in favor of Hollywood product. No doubt the movie, written and directed by Joseph Cedar, owes the bulk of its success to the fact that it‘s a capable, soulful thriller with a love story as steamy as is possible when its lead characters are Orthodox Jews. But I’m willing to bet that Israeli moviegoers also took to their hearts the film‘s anguished cry for individual liberty.
As in many nations built on the double from scratch, Israelis on both the left and the right have been asked since the creation of their state in 1948 to submerge private aspirations in the interests of the greater public good: Be a good Zionist, a good soldier, a good Jew. The hero of Time of Favor, Menachem, a righteous young army officer played by the sweet-faced Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni, is all of the above. Under the tutelage of the charismatic Rabbi Meltzer (Assi Dayan, the son of General Moshe Dayan), who heads a settlement in a breathtakingly beautiful desert region of the Occupied Territories, Menachem is deputed to groom an exclusively religious company of soldiers for service in the military. Meanwhile, he has fallen for the rabbi’s daughter, Michal, played with sullen conviction by the improbably named Israeli phenom Tinkerbell. Chafing under her father‘s efforts to marry her off to his star pupil Pini, who is also Menachem’s best friend, the rebellious Michal urges Menachem to attend for once to his feelings rather than to his duty or his conscience. What begins as a love triangle evolves into a potential tragedy of much larger proportions as the rejected Pini (played by Israeli comedian Edan Alterman, who, in the movie, bears a not inconsequential resemblance to Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin‘s assassin) plots a revenge that draws as much on his religious fanaticism as it does on his disappointment in love.
As a rule, Orthodox Jews haven’t fared well at the hands of the Israeli filmmaking fraternity, which is overwhelmingly secular, if not always liberal. One doesn‘t have to be religious to have been turned off by Amos Gitai’s 1999 film Kadosh or the American-born Boaz Yakin‘s A Price Above Rubies (1998), both of which dismissed ultra-Orthodox Jews as rigid, woman-hating hypocrites without making the least effort to understand that community on its own terms. Time of Favor offers an insider’s sympathetic view: Cedar is an Orthodox Jew, and though he‘s not a settler, the movement is regarded in the movie as unproblematic — up to the point that its ideals curdle into extremism. Even then, Cedar won’t thin his characters into types. The rabbi is no Meir Kahane, but a dedicated radical Zionist who has given insufficient thought to the price his family has paid for his prizing of land over life, as well as to the impact his fiery oratory may have had on his impressionable disciples. Menachem, a devout Jew and classic Israeli warrior-hero, finds his most cherished beliefs challenged on every front when he falls under suspicion of terrorism from a secret service already mistrustful of the divided loyalties of religious soldiers. In the movie‘s wistful, lingering final shot of the Temple Mount — the single most contested sacred site in the war between Muslims and Jews, where Ariel Sharon made the ill-timed and provocative visit that is said to have fanned into flames the latest Palestinian Intifada — one senses the transformation of the director from a devout Jew into a devout Jew who’s been liberalized by doubt.