Given the latest outbreaks of Middle East violence--not to mention the continuing traumas of September 11--it is timely, if unsettling, that a new Israeli film about religious fervor and extremist political commitment in that embattled nation is being released in the United States. Written and directed by 33-year-old Joseph Cedar, a native New Yorker who moved with his family to Israel at age 5, Time of Favor (HaHesder) combines a charismatic rabbi, a love triangle and a secret plot to blow up a sacred site in Jerusalem in a potent mixture of melodrama, action and keen political observation. Last year, this film dominated the Israeli version of the Academy Awards. It's strong stuff.
Set largely in a rugged West Bank settlement, Cedar's story (supposedly fact-based) turns on the internal intrigues in a "Hesder" army unit, whose young soldiers study the Torah when they're not on maneuvers. The director of the yeshiva is the magnetic patriot Rabbi Meltzer (portrayed by Assi Dayan, son of the late Israeli general Moshe Dayan), who inspires his charges as much with warrior rhetoric as with the tenets of Judaism. "The dead lion is more alive than the living dog," he tells them.
Among the rabbi's student-soldiers are the dashing Menachem (Aki Avni), a natural leader who would make an ideal commander were it not for his nagging doubts about the military, and his friend Pini (Idan Alterman), a frail, bookish boy built for scholarship. When the doctrinaire rabbi promises his only daughter, Michal (actress Tinkerbell is a dramatic gem), to his star pupil, like a prize in a raffle, she naturally rebels. This willful, independent girl is drawn not to pale Pini but to the physical Menachem, and that sets a hazardous series of missteps into motion. Before long, Pini has drawn a malleable third soldier, Itamar (Micha Selektar), into a mad plan to destroy the Temple Mount, a site sacred to Muslims and Jews. The consequences would, of course, be disastrous.
First-time director Cedar, an Orthodox Jew who spent years on the West Bank himself, develops his requisite action sequences well enough, particularly a gun chase through ancient tunnels beneath the Old City that's as exciting as anything in Three Kings. And there's subtlety in his romantic games: The sequence in which Menachem and Michal court each other purely through hand-shadows playing on a wall is eloquent and charming. But this clear-eyed young filmmaker proves even better at illuminating the philosophies at war in Israeli society. Between the hawkish fervor of Rabbi Meltzer and the stubborn, questioning spirit of his daughter lies the dangerous impressionability of a boy like Pini, who cannot distinguish between patriotism, personal sacrifice and folly.
There's so much brewing in Time of Favor, socially and politically, American audiences may forget in the course of these 100 minutes that they've been listening to Hebrew dialogue while reading English subtitles. Despite a couple of low-budget, rookie-director rough spots, this fascinating look at Israel in ferment feels as immediate as the latest news footage from Gaza and, because of its heightened, well-shaped dramas, twice as powerful.
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