Cannes: If “Synonyms” was a full-throated howl, then “Ahed’s Knee” is the spit of anger that still remained in Nadav Lapid’s mouth.
When writer-director Nadav Lapid was in the press for his award-winning ‘Synonyms’ at the Berlinale in 2019, he told a funny story about his confrontational approach to the Israeli notions of masculinity and national identity that rage in his films: law had a baby boy, she asked him for advice on whether or not they should circumcise the child. “I totally understand if you don’t want your son to be Israeli,” Lapid told him, channeling his late mother’s long-held hope that her children would leave the country. “But if you stay in Israel, then be an Israeli.”
Cut to: Tel Aviv about a year later, when Lapid and his girlfriend welcomed a baby boy. Suddenly the foreskin was on the other foot (so to speak), and he found that some things were easier to prescribe than to practice. “When thoughts become facts, sometimes they become very, very complete facts,” Lapid explained of the choice to suspend the one-sided ritual. “So we just said, ‘Okay, let’s decide not to decide.’ Laughing, he recognized how this embodied a full-fledged Jewish way of thinking.
While all of Lapid’s films reflect this heavy ambivalence towards the suffocating idea of Israel (“Synonyms” revisits the period of twenty years when a young Lapid fled to Paris and violently tried to get rid of the Hebrew language after convincing themselves that he was born in the Middle East by mistake), neither of them used it as an excuse. Likewise, while all of Lapid’s films squeeze and contract with the frustration of an artist whose homeland is too wild and extreme to fit into a camera lens, none of them have faced this frustration head on. Not until now.
This is – more than the palpable urgency of its production, the unmoored digital photography that got the shoot to be completed in 18 days, or the unusual emphasis on stagnant bodies rather than their strength – is what separates “Ahed’s Knee” of everything Israel’s most important author has done before: it’s a film about a filmmaker struggling with the powerlessness of a lost cause. Lapid’s ultra-personal cinema has never been cocky enough to think it could help save Israel from being engulfed in the Dead Sea. But this, angrier than his previous work but strangely also more tender, is his first film to come to terms with life aboard a sinking ship. He’s less concerned with survival than with how people manage to keep their balance and be self-reliant as the whole country rolls to the right below them.
If “Synonyms” was a howl, “Ahed’s Knee” is the spit that still remained in Lapid’s mouth at the end. It’s a smaller and less electrifying film – as content and implosive as the title’s reference to Éric Rohmer suggests – but also a film that goes to the heart of Lapid’s visceral genius and cauterizes the open wound at the center of his work. . In many ways it feels like a cornerstone of everything he has done so far, while in others (especially his knotted generosity) it seems to point to a new path for one to take. of the world’s most irrepressible filmmakers.
It starts with auditions for a movie that Lapid himself would never have thought of making. Y (choreographer Avshalom Pollak as Lapid’s brutal proxy) stealthily tries to start a drama about Ahed Tamimi, the real Palestinian activist who became a household name on both sides of the border after her protest against the Israel Police inspired a lawmaker tweeted that the 17-year-old should be affected in the kneecap. Money for the film might be hard to come by now that the Israel Film Fund has started withdrawing its support for subversive projects, but Y is famous enough to push the project to cross the finish line (his last film was played in Berlin!). Still, he doesn’t understand the extent of the growing censorship problem in the country until he travels to a small town in the Arava Desert for a screening of his work and spends a day with his cheerful young affair. , a librarian who reports to the Minister of Culture.
Her name is Yahalom (Nur Fibak), she’s one of Y’s biggest fans, and the sexual tension between them immediately verges on parody; Lapid’s agitated camera frames their faces a few inches apart, and the blockage eventually becomes so complete that Y’s big speech to Yahalom feels more like a pas de deux Pina Bausch than a monologue. Y can share a viewer’s anti-Zionist feeling, but he’s also an asshole chatting with strangers like everyone he meets has to audition for him. It demands their life stories, only to disconnect when they start talking. Yahalom, on the other hand, is a radiant flower in the midst of a barren landscape of hell, and we like her even though she admits to being a government stooge. Specifically, we sympathize with the terms of her complicity: Yahalom’s unbridled love for books led her to become a librarian, unaware that her success in the job would soon require her to watch them.
Most of this story is about Y and Yahalom’s time together over the next day, although Tamimi’s knee – almost never mentioned again – remains a powerful symbolism in a film that repeatedly focuses on extreme close-ups of body parts that most directors tend to ignore. . Lapid’s shooting compositions are as precious to him as righteous speeches are to Aaron Sorkin, and it’s crazy to see all the different ways he arranges for the soles of Y’s feet or the crook of his neck. de Yahalom find their way into the extreme close-up (“Just pay attention to the style,” Y asks his audience). Tamimi’s knee, a symbol of strength and servility in equal measure, therefore becomes a sort of Rosetta Stone for the rest of the film which uses it as a namesake, as Lapid struggles with the cost of flexing in the face of an oppressive government. , and also the amount of flexion when the only other option is to break.
Not that it’s always so easy to guess the difference. Y, in his leather jacket and dark sunglasses, affects an insufferably cool performative, but his voice softens as he sends a video from local sites to his co-author mother as she dies of cancer. lung at home (Lapid’s mother edited her first three feature films, and dropped by shortly after she finished cutting “Synonyms”). Even Y’s malicious memories of his military service cannot be absolute, as they may have been corrupted by resentment over the years; a long story that he tells Yahalom in the middle of the film, visibly indebted to “Beau Travail” even before Yahalom made the connection with “Billy Budd”, only comes to its end when it is suggested that maybe he misled her about the details.
Human screams bleed into jet engines, a civilian motorcycle tears the streets of Tel Aviv like an airstrike, and the most intense sexual contact in an undressing film manifests in militaristic violence. It’s hard to guess between resistance and complicity when you don’t know where a sound comes from or even what you’re looking at (Lapid’s camera lives on a pivot and takes obvious pleasure in disorienting you with the simplest gestures, such as ” Ahed Knee “often looks like an entire movie shot in the style of the hectic iPhone footage that has been scattered over” Synonyms “).
This hazy ambivalence between righteousness and cruelty extends to the flashy – and ultimately tiring – ferocity of the film’s tone, as well as the meta-narrative that surrounds it, as Lapid came up with the idea of a screening as the one attended, and has decided not to publicly denounce the librarian he met for whitewashing the government’s new censorship tactics. He even signed the form promising that he wouldn’t deviate from any pre-approved topic during the question-and-answer session. And yet, the very existence of “Ahed’s Knee” would seem to make this woman angry, even as the movie’s “we all know this country is over” mentality softens the blame. It wouldn’t be a Lapid joint if he didn’t have some of his own skin in the game.
This is the nature of his cinema. There is a scene of male soldiers gathering their sexual energy, and another where Y wanders through the arid desert to the sound of “Be My Baby” by Vanessa Paradis. These are just clashes and collisions and the violent tug-of-war between heart and mind that occurs inside real people living among the ruins of fascism.
“Maybe there will be a miracle” is a constant refrain, but it’s not really a movie that believes in such things. At least not in the “turning water into wine” kind of miracle. It might allow someone to come out of their own helpless anger and extend a redemptive measure of kindness to those drowning by their side, but even that is not clear. It suffices to recognize that most people are doing just the right thing not to fall to their knees and cry, and perhaps to find a common bond in the strength that it can take. That too is nothing if not a Jewish way of thinking.
Rating: B +
“Ahed’s Knee” was presented in competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.