The films of Israeli director Amos Gitai have never been far removed from his politics. He is, almost exclusively, a political filmmaker. But in Carmel he throws in all his chips by creating a deeply personal, nearly shapeless collage of autobiographical elements that sum up in 93 minutes who Gitai is, an identity forever intertwined with the fortunes of his birth country. For sure, Gitai seems to care little about what the audience will glean from this oddity, which is its strength and weakness. But two things are not in dispute: he loves his troubled country and his late mother, Efratia. Gitai’s gentle touch and free associative honesty could mitigate the otherwise impenetrable goings-on. Aside from its screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, financial prospects for Carmel are zero.
Gitai began as a documentary filmmaker and Carmel fuses documentary, narrative and stream of conscious forms in creating a singular, occasionally exasperating, work. In fact, Carmel can be considered the ultimate result of Gitai’s filmmaking style, which has been likened to that of the New Wave pioneers (Carmel shows echoes of Godard’s 2004 Notre Musique). Although he’s not always popular at home, Gitai is still very much an Israeli: a gentle soul but a bitter realist who is desirous of peace but resigned to war. Those who complain (sometimes justifiably so) of a certain egotism that runs through his work will be turned off immediately by the opening stanza containing photos of a pensive Gitai walking along the beach while narration, read by Jeanne Moreau, positions the film as a poem about what people “think and what they think they want.
The Jews have rarely been able to find a goodly chunk of history where they can just be left alone. Gitai reminds us of this early on with a crude recreation of the Roman invasion of the Second Temple in the 1st century AD, its overlapping, multi-lingual dialogue connecting a violent then with an equally violent now. Gitai, known for being critical of Israel, follows that up with a knock on today’s bickering, distracted Israeli solder, one who may feel that the origins of the conflict are more hazy and less relevant as the bloody centuries drag on.
Interwoven with these brief flashes of history are warm remembrances of his beloved mother (who was born in 1909 near Mount Carmel). The director includes the reading of his mother’s letters by Gitai’s wife, Rivka, and one sweet passage where Gitai’s daughter is read a letter from her grandmother. There are also reenactments concerning his mother. The best and most symbolic sees Efratia at home chatting amiably with two total strangers who’ve asked for shelter to wait out the latest air raid drill. All three wear gas masks. One approaches camera and reads a poem, her beauty hidden by the puke-green, army-issue mask. Indeed, at times Carmel feels like a document for his children, a visual scrapbook not meant for us, but one that we’ve been allowed to see. The film’s best passage involves Gitai directing his son how to read dialogue for a scene, then recounting for him the helicopter crash during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that injured him and became the turning point that led him to filmmaking.
If all this sounds great on paper, the truth is Carmel is stubbornly opaque and Gitai can’t always clearly externalize what he’s thinking, a fancy way of saying the movie is too inaccessible. But in an era of impersonal filmmaking, Carmel is as personal as a movie can be without naked body parts. Gitai’s center-left political sensibilities allow for a dissection of war from a more human level, nicely dramatized in a long, uninterrupted take between pacifist Gitai and a local gas station owner questioning the “half-true, half-lies” on Israeli TV. The two men soliloquize while circling each other, neither one listening to what the other is saying.
Gitai has never been one for solutions, only the pensive, artful, occasionally frustrating articulation of the problems. As someone born in Haifa only two years after the creation of Israel, he has a lifetime pass to vent his thoughts in the manner he has chosen. As articulated in the film, “a man can be in two places…in the past and in the present.” Gitai has always lived in both places, but in Carmel he’s given something for his descendants to watch in the future. Whether they’ll understand this sometimes aggravating, always heartfelt, work any more than we do is another question. Whether they’ll watch it with Israel at peace or at war is, sadly, the easier question to answer.
Distributor: Kino International
Director/Screenwriter: Amos Gitai
Producers: Amos Gitai, Michael Tapuah, Laurent Truchot and Augustus Pelliccia
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: January 13 NY