Marking the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, this omnibus edition of Meir Fenigstein’s annual festival boasts almost 60 movies, of which, with a couple of exceptions, the newest are the weakest. On the whole, it’s true that the current Israeli cinema is on a roll — if you haven’t yet caught the most innovative and delightful Israeli film of the year, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, or Joseph Cedar’s pretty good war movie Beaufort, now’s your chance.
But aside from the riveting documentary Peres Rabin — Everything is Personal, about the fierce rivalry between Israel’s two top Labor politicians, I saw only one comparably good recent feature of those available for prescreening. That would be Foul Gesture, Tzahi Grad’s fearlessly irreverent, strangely moving black comedy about a stalled writer rejuvenated by his efforts to win justice after his feisty wife flips the bird to a thuggish war hero, who retaliates on Holocaust Memorial Day. The festival’s opening-night movie, Avi Nesher’s The Secrets, in which Fanny Ardant was unaccountably suckered into playing a terminally ill nut case, who complicates the vaguely lesbian friendship between two young seminary students in the ancient city of Safed, is as inordinately soapy as The Galilee Eskimos, a ruinously broad comedy about elderly kibbtuzniks trying to fend off foreclosure, is sappy. Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor’s Strangers is an absorbing, if predictable, drama about a romance between an Israeli kibbutznik and a Palestinian single mother during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. In Assaf Bernstein’s The Debt, an otherwise shameless and inept effort to piggyback on the success of Eitan Fox’s excellent 2004 spy thriller, Walk on Water, the only asset is the film’s leading lady, Israeli diva Gila Almagor, cast as a former Mossad agent returning to Europe to open a hairdressing salon — oops, sorry — to conduct unfinished business with a former Nazi. Fox’s film will screen in the festival’s lively retrospective of Israeli cinema, ranging from the flowering of Israeli ethnic comedy and satire in the 1960s to the more sober present, which is marked by religious and political conflict.
Israeli expats of a certain age, myself included, will kvell, sing along and leave on a cloud of kitsch nostalgia from beloved ’60s classics such as Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah, with Topol as a Yemenite immigrant whose get-rich-quick schemes end up exposing corruption in the housing industry; Menahem Golan’s Kazablan, featuring Israeli singing star Yehoram Gaon as a Sephardic war veteran in love with an Ashkenazic girl; and Avi Nesher’s slight but sweet and, in its time, enormously popular The Troupe, in which a very young Fenigstein can be seen warbling away in an army entertainment band charged with preserving soldiers’ morale during the Six Day War. But the must-see movie of Israel’s fledgling national cinema is Egyptian-born director Moshe Mizrachi’s lovely 1973 The House on Chelouche Street, starring Almagor as the widowed mother of four who tries to transcend her family’s Tel Aviv slum. (Royal, Sunset 5 and Fallbrook 7; through Thurs., June 26. www.israelfilmfestival.com)