As always, the feature films at Tribeca (April 17-28) are a mixed bag, which makes it difficult to identify trends. That said, think horror and Israel, and the broader Middle East. The Israelis are back with two features (one a world premiere) that are sure to get attention. Whether they warm anyone’s heart toward Israel is another question.
The world premiere is "Big Bad Wolves," by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papsuahdo, a black comedy which takes you into the world of corrupt lazy Israeli police as they hunt and persecute a suspect in the molesting and murder of a schoolgirl. It also takes you into horror, once again a strong point -- if an uneven one -- at Tribeca. If you ever wondered whether torture had a buffo side, you’ll find it here. You won’t find much politics. This torture-ology is meant to entertain.
You may find that your jaw will drop -- a lot. With help from some brutal colleagues, renegade cop Micki (Lior Ashkenazi from "Late Marriage," here playing Tel Aviv’s sheepish version of the Bad Lieutenant) tries to beat a confession out of a nerdy teacher with eyes for young girls. The videotaped beating turns up on the internet for all to see, to the chagrin of the Tel Aviv PD. Taken off the case, Micki goes rogue on his own investigation. So does the dead girl’s vengeful father. In country where almost everyone has military training, there’s plenty of expertise in how to tear a confession out of someone in strapped into a chair. Here it’s done with hammers, blowtorches, and pliers, and plenty of nagging Jewish mother jokes from a nagging Jewish mother. This film adds its own new meaning to the term “feel the guilt.” It may also redefine chutzpah.
"Big Bad Wolves" is the latest from the team that brought you 2011's "Rabies," a title that seemed designed to trigger a mega-torrent of illegal downloads. The new comedy could be a harder sell (or steal). Do the American audiences who saw former Israeli security officials deplore the excesses of their country’s war against Palestinians in "The Gatekeepers" now want to watch a comedy about Israelis torturing Israelis?
Prudes at the screening that I attended found it “too mean,” but I laughed at the over-the-top gags as much as I did at the film’s inside jab at the country’s air of moral superiority.
Israeli producers have had a savvy strategy, which involves premiering films at Tribeca, and then selling those films at the market in Cannes. Yossi by Eytan Fox and The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger premiered at Tribeca last year, with The Flat winning the best editing prize. Neither film took off at the domestic US box office. No matter. You wonder why other countries aren’t using Tribeca so strategically.
"Six Acts," the other Israeli feature at Tribeca 2013, is as unflattering toward Israeli society as "Big Bad Wolves," except director Jonathan Gurfinkle sets his debut feature in one of the country’s most desirable suburbs. Gili (Sivan Levy), a teenage girl from a working-class family, moves into town, living in a modest apartment building at the other end of town from villas modeled on Malibu. Insecure and eager to please, she tries to make friends through sex. Lots of the local glitterati boys end up exploiting her. It’s ugly, even in interiors right out of Architectural Digest. Shot with a tactility that makes its locations feel overstuffed with luxurious privilege, "Six Acts" is a serial pile-on, often painful to watch. Sivan Levy is an uneasy mix of sensuality, vulnerability and misplaced trust as the drama devolves over six acts (sex acts).
Unlike "Big Bad Wolves," "Six Acts" (which made its world premiere at San Sebastian last year) has a grim realism to its grotesquery, and a universality, which means that US audiences may not think that they need to watch an Israeli version of a story that they have seen on the screen so many times before. The agony that young Sivan Levy brings to this vision of Israel today will change their minds.
Other Tribeca 2013 Dramatic Features To Watch: