In film buff slang, “Felliniesque” conveys a a lot of cinematic shorthand in just a single word. It can mean a self-conscious artist self-conscious about her or his self-consciousness. The word is almost synonymous with existential angst and cultural ennui.
And since the term most quickly summons up memories of “La Dolce Vita” or its bookend, “8 1/2,” there’s a lightness about it — self-criticism as cultural criticism, most often with an amused, arm’s length take on decadence and society’s shortcomings.
That “lightness” means it’s not the perfect fit in describing Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s angsty social satire “Ahed’s Knee.” The title may echo Eric Rohmer’s pre #MetToo older-man/teen-girls cringe comedy “Claire’s Knee.” But Lapid (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) is grappling with something more elemental about an artist’s role in society and his own place in an increasingly reactionary and groupthink-authoritarian Israel.
A Palestinian teen named Ahed Tamimi, whose family has suffered deaths and imprisonment at the hands of Israeli occupiers, lashed out at a soldier and had the temerity to slap him. The video became an international stink as Israel threw the kid in prison.
“Ahed’s Knee” begins with a disorienting, stream-of-camera-in-extreme-close-up musical audition session for a movie about her. Israeli (not Palestinian) actresses — Ortal Solomon, Neta Roth and Mili Eshet — sing “Welcome to the Jungle,” show off expensive dental work and the tear in their leggings at the knee, don wigs and hurl themselves into the part for a jaded filmmaker, “Y” (Avshalom Pollak) and his casting director.
We hear an actor, playing the part of a government official, grouse that Ahed — who faced house arrest — “should have gotten a bullet in the knee” because THAT would have kept her in the house, “arrested.”
And maybe we see what Y sees in that moment. The very idea of some privileged, acting-schooled Israeli Jew playing this icon of Palestinian resistance to oppression is patently offensive. Then again, maybe that’s not crossed Y’s mind...yet.
As he sits in a small plane en route to the town of Sapir for an afternoon screening of one of his earlier films at a local library, we pick up on Y’s discontent. The son of artists, his collaborator/screenwriter mother has cancer. When he talks, he mutters (in Hebrew) about the “dumbing down of this country” thanks to “censorship,” message-control, leading to a populace that “revels in its stupidity.”
He downloads all this simmering concern on the young, perky culture ministry functionary (Nur Fibak) who welcomes him, briefs him on the town, the desert region (Avra) it is in and how the evening’s screening and Q&A will go. She smiles prettily and makes lots of eye contact. The leather-jacketed Y, stubbly and 40something and single, takes on a familiarity with her that whispers “chemistry” or hints at least that he’s interested.
But there’s this form from “the ministry,” the list of subjects he’s allowed to speak about (and get paid for). She chirps on about “the sea,” life, love, “Jewish immigration,” and Y grouses about “no mention of the occupation, conflict” and the like.
There’s a crisis of conscience in play, and we sense a tirade to come. “Ahed’s Knee” is about that day in Sapir, from arrival to screening to debating that “approved” list of topics and the State of the State of Israel, where an artist might well feel the walls of free expression closing in on him thanks to decades of corrupt, thought-controlling reactionary rule.
Lapid’s storytelling style here includes odd interludes — a driver (Yoram Honig) takes the filmmaker to his room, pausing to show him the rotting result of a failed deal with the Russians over the bell pepper harvest, pausing again for a little sing-along and dance-along to Bill Withers’ ironically-used “Lovely Day.”
Y relates an anecdote from his national military service days that musically sends up the homoerotic nature of military service (more dancing) and underscores his point about how “off message” unapproved thought and talk are suppressed, beginning with that heady dose of military indoctrination.
“Felliniesque” kicks in with the seriously roundabout way Lapid gets to the story at hand and the various, occasionally daft interludes. I can’t say it all fits together neatly or that it all contributes to the narrative in a particularly helpful, streamlined way. But it’s easy enough to make sense of.
Pollak, a veteran of film sets in front of and behind the camera, wears his RayBans and five-day stubble like a movie-making egoist, imposing himself — conversationally — on women he doesn’t know, like the small plane pilot who transports him, interrupting a power ballad singer rehearsing with her bassist in a Sapir garage, and the captive, somewhat star-struck Yahalom (Fibak) escorting him around, hearing him out and professing sympathy for his anti “censorship” ethos, perhaps because she has some carnal interest in him.
Lapid’s film ambles along, never straying far from its path but dawdling and stopping for distracting little bits of business — one of the actresses auditioning for him calls to obnoxiously lobby for the part, that pause at the bell pepper farm, a couple of somewhat aimless thinking/ phone-chatting walk-abouts in the Avra desert.
“Ahed’s Knee” isn’t as sexy, satiric and light as its Felliniesque opening promises. But Lapid manages to make a lot of points about the creative person’s life in modern Israel, the sensitivities triggered and the moral quandary a thinking Israeli finds her or himself in. The writer-director does a decent job of cloaking a sermon about artistic freedom in a tale of an artist at an intellectual crossroads and a man fixated on the fate of “Ahed’s Knee.”
Rating: unrated, profanity, violence
Cast: Avshalom Pollak, Nur Fibak, Yoram Honig, Ortal Solomon, Neta Roth and Mili Eshet
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nadav Lapid. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:49