Beyond the Multiplex

An Israeli-American director tracks down her Palestinian nanny's family. An Argentine hotshot tells a story of sexual awakening. Plus: French cinema's newest coltish sex symbol.

Published April 28, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

The Israeli-born documentary filmmaker Danae Elon told me something this week that I can already tell is going to stick for a while. She tries to keep political opinions out of her films, she says, because "they don't work." They create an immediate impasse: You agree or disagree, and either way you're in a box. What works in film is relationships, human interactions, because by their very nature they're open-ended, unpredictable, surprising.

You can read more of Elon's comments below, but I'm on a particular mission to get people to see her film "Another Road Home." Yeah, it's a documentary about Israelis and Palestinians, but it isn't what a friend of mine calls "spinach cinema." (Good for you and packed with vitamins, but not so super-interesting.) It's a pure, bracing, philosophically challenging movie, but more than that it's a great story about human relationships, so it's open-ended, unpredictable, etc.

Every time I watch another pile of new films I start to see patterns of connection between them, and those may be imaginary. I don't really believe that memes or shared ideas are spreading virally from one director to another, across continents and vastly different approaches to the medium. Maybe what I'm seeing are the patterns in human life that are there all the time, concentrated and distilled.

This time around the pattern has been, as Elon says, relationships. I know: Duh. More specifically, it's been the often daunting relationships between parents and their adult children, and also the intensely passionate, self-centered, almost world-destroying relationships forged by teenage girls, with each other, with boys, with themselves. The former appear in Elon's movie (her dad is the left-wing Israeli writer Amos Elon) and in a movie I'll get to next time, Mark Wexler's "Tell Them Who You Are," which is about his father, the famous cinematographer (and political radical) Haskell Wexler.

On the teenage-girl front, there are two excellent new imports to add to what's already shaping up as a banner year for foreign flicks (and specifically for what used to oh-so-charmingly be known as "art films"). Mind you, I'm not sure anybody's going out to see them except you and me. But we'll have fun. It'll be like the '70s: We'll wear funny raincoats and smoke in the theater, and after the movie's over we'll know the only coffee house in town that makes a decent cappuccino, even if the place always has that faint odor of somebody having left the Camembert out for a week. If I get there late, put yeast on my popcorn.

"The Holy Girl": God's love vs. a tortured street perv
We never completely know where we are or what's going on in "The Holy Girl" (an awkward but correct translation of the original title, "La Niña Santa"), the new movie from hot-as-a-summer-sidewalk Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. If that sort of thing drives you crazy, then stay home. But Martel is after subjective reality, specifically the cloistered, hothouse world of Amalia (Maria Alché), a sullen, freckled nymphet of 14 or so who is torn between her love of Jesus and the ticking bomb of her sexuality.

Martel's plot is a tangled melodrama you'll piece together eventually: Amalia gets groped on the street by a respectable citizen and becomes obsessed with him, essentially becoming his stalker. (He's not interested; a little nasty friction through the pants was apparently all he had in mind.) But the bespectacled perv (Carlos Belloso) turns out to be a doctor attending a medical conference in the hotel where Amalia lives with her mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), an attractive divorcee who's exuding a more worldly form of horniness.

But that's only explaining a little of the tremendous, hypnotic power of "The Holy Girl." When and where are we? There are only a few clues: Probably somewhere in Argentina, sometime around 1980. Why do Amalia and Helena live in a crumbling resort hotel with an unidentified older woman? We never know. And much of the film consists of tight-focus shots of Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) as they whisper gossip and sexual secrets, run crashing through the woods in one of those mysteriously frightening moments of adolescent freedom, practice French kissing, or try to induce religious visions.

Amalia's world is one of intense communion with whatever and whoever, and of course mostly herself. The poles of her existence are the music store where a man is demonstrating a theremin (which is somehow perfect) while the unfortunate Dr. Jano presses his corduroy-clad woody into her backside, and the cultlike Catholic education classes where a startlingly beautiful instructor (Mía Maestro) urges the girls to seek a "vocation," meaning, as the Blues Brothers would say, a mission from God. Amalia thinks she's got one, and it apparently involves sneaking into Dr. Jano's room when he's not there and masturbating in his bed.

I suppose Martel means this movie as a parable about the fungible nature of good and evil, but we don't have to go there right now. It's a marvelously acted film, driven by a sweaty-palmed, exponentially mounting tension. What Jano has done to Amalia is of course contemptible, and I guess he earns his comeuppance. Does he deserve to encounter the scariest teenage girl since Linda Blair in "The Exorcist"? That part's up to you.

"The Holy Girl" opens April 29 in New York, with a national release to follow in May.

"Another Road Home": From New Jersey to Palestine, the hard way
When Danae Elon set out to find a man from her past named Musa Obeidallah, more than sentiment or nostalgia was at work. As I said above, Elon is the only child of Israeli author Amos Elon and his American-born wife, the former journalist and literary agent Beth Elon. Obeidallah is a Palestinian who was hired by the Elons to be Danae's nanny and caregiver when she was 6 months old, in 1967, shortly after Israel's sweeping victory over the Arab nations in the Six-Day War.

Obeidallah worked in the Elons' Jerusalem home for 20 years, spending more time with Danae than with any of his own 11 kids -- and more time, she also says, than her own father did. But after she grew up and left home, Obeidallah returned to his village in the West Bank. Tensions in the Middle East grew worse, and the two families drifted apart. As an adult in her late 30s, with Palestinian suicide bombers attacking Israel almost every week and the "question" between the two peoples less settled than ever, Elon began to reflect on the oddness of this relationship. What was this like for Musa's kids? Furthermore, what did it mean for her to have had a father figure she took for granted who had now vanished from her life?

She had met the Obeidallah children years earlier, and she knew that Musa's income from her parents had enabled him to send most of them to America. Elon herself now lives in New York, and the first stage of her journey was an expedition into the burgeoning Palestinian immigrant community of Paterson, N.J., where she thought some of the Obeidallah sons lived. (One of the first things she discovers is that she doesn't know how to spell the family's last name, and that Musa's name is really Mahmoud.)

"Another Road Home" is a brave, almost naked, philosophical expedition. Sure, it has a heartwarming component, as Elon travels from Manhattan to Paterson to Jordan to the West Bank and finally back to Jerusalem, and the two families stage a reunion that is only about 60 percent awkwardness. But what's most impressive is the fearless intelligence of this gawkily beautiful woman as she turns over the rocks in her own family's garden, exposing the half-hidden contradictions and thoughtless moments of prejudice in just about the most enlightened people you can imagine, herself included. It's a fascinating human story and a film as pure as ice water.

Earlier this week, Danae Elon spoke to me from her apartment in downtown Manhattan.

It was pretty gutsy, not just to set out on this very personal quest to track down Musa, but also to film it. How'd you get started?

Well, my entire life experience and documentary film kind of go hand in hand. I love to experience life through the camera, whether it's a still camera or a video camera. I'm always telling myself stories; the experience of taking these risks and exploring reality is something I want to share with others. Even when I was growing up in Israel, the camera was very much part of my life.

Right -- we see some footage of Musa you shot at his house in the West Bank in 1991, the last time you had seen him.

That's right. I wasn't sure this would turn out to be such a personal film. When I went out to Paterson to look for Musa's sons, I was feeling something that was about being an exile in a foreign country.

Something you shared with the people you met there. And even though they were Palestinian and you're Jewish, you came from the same place, pretty much.

Yeah, I told myself there was a real story in the sensation I was experiencing in the streets of Paterson. The interactions I had in the streets and the bakeries were really interesting. I heard all kinds of stories. I saw license plates with the names of Palestinian villages that were abandoned after 1948 [when Israel was founded and many Arabs expelled]. I wanted to explore those nuances you couldn't see on the surface. There was a profound internal story occurring, and I went with it. I recognized the dualism between the story of my personal life and the larger context. Everything that is personal in the film, I believe, also addresses the larger context; I didn't do this for self-catharsis or whatever.

Your father and your mother obviously both agreed to cooperate, even though they're very exposed in a certain way. They come off as tremendously likable people, but there are also moments of extreme vulnerability: You talking to your father about the fact that Musa spent more time with you than he did, or him worrying that Musa's sons are going to be Muslim fundamentalists.

What I recognized from the beginning was that I could expose certain contradictions, certain modes of behavior, in my own family. That was how I could deal with it in a way that was truthful and honest. My parents were very supportive, but at the very beginning the idea of introducing a camera into our private discussions was not easy. He's a very private man, and we had to get past that. I had to be sincere enough to pull this off, but also walk a tasteful line and reveal only what was really important.

He learned to respect me in a certain way that became independent of our relationship as father and daughter. For a long time I sought to please him and live up to him. But in this movie I tried to find my own voice within a strong family and not make the kind of film he would have made.

One of the most powerful moments comes when Musa's son Nasser, a pharmacist in New Jersey, kind of confronts you. He's friendly, but he asks you how much you were aware of him and his situation as a kid, and you admit that you pretty much weren't.

It's a question of memory. When you're in a position of privilege, you will not remember. When he was confronting me like that, I felt I had to be really honest. This was not only my own story. I grew up in a specific cultural context, the context of Israel in those years, and this sort of thing occurred with many people who were in my situation.

And all over the world, too, if you're a person of privilege. I was thinking about the African-American housekeeper who worked for my parents for many years. I know she had children, but I can't remember if I ever met them.

Sure, yeah, of course. It's not exactly a universal experience, but it's not uncommon either. At that point in the film, I felt very comfortable being myself and reacting naturally back to Nasser. It felt very organic. I'm very grateful to Nasser for confronting me and essentially turning the camera back on me. He created a way to justify the personal documentary, make it less self-indulgent.

What about that moment when your father, the famous Israeli liberal, is worried about meeting Musa's kids because they might be extremists? He even asks you whether they've grown beards.

That reaction has nothing to do with intellect or politics -- it would be rare not to have that cross your mind. I found it humorous, but it's actually ambiguous as to why he's saying that. Maybe he feels uncomfortable, and maybe he worries that they will.

As it turns out, they don't have beards, and while they're clearly Muslims, they don't look like our stereotype of Palestinian radicals. How different would the film have been if they were fundamentalists or had really forceful anti-Israeli opinions?

Oh, I think everybody in the film has strong political opinions. I know for sure that Nasser and his brothers do. But opinions in film don't really work. Where are they going to take you? What works in film is relationships, interaction between human beings. When you inject political opinion, it would create the classical portrayal of Israelis vs. Palestinians -- do they support suicide bombings or the return of Jerusalem or whatever. It doesn't matter. Maybe it matters because it makes my father uncomfortable.

You seem to be arguing that this kind of personal contact, where the agenda isn't about politics or religion, offers a way forward that other kinds of discourse don't.

I don't believe that coming to the table with an agenda is going to be helpful. I believe that as long as there's an occupation and there's no basic justice in the Middle East, it's a very difficult situation. But you have to come to the table and see people who are the same as you and who have the same rights as you. I'm very comfortable with who I am and where I'm from; I don't feel the need to defend my right to the land of Israel or the right of return. I don't pretend to have an answer to any of these larger questions, but I think that compassion and a willingness to listen is a good place to start.

"Another Road Home" opens April 29 in New York, May 6 in Los Angeles, and May 13 in Washington, with many other cities to follow.

"A Tout de Suite": A gangster's moll on the run in '70s Europe
Isild Le Besco is the latest in a venerable line of French cinema's coltish sex symbols, the kind of girl who can look breathtaking in one shot and kind of like an overcooked stringbean in the next. She might be the No. 1 reason to catch "A Tout de Suite," her latest collaboration with writer-director Benoît Jacquot (after "Sade," "Adolphe" and "Princesse Marie," for you Francophiles), but there are plenty of others.

Jacquot is a fine filmmaker of the post-new-wave generation whose career stretches back to the '70s, but he's only intermittently attracted an international audience. His biggest hit was clearly "A Single Girl" in 1995, but "A Tout de Suite" (meaning, roughly, "right now"), based on the memoir of Elisabeth Fanger, a French girl who ditched her bourgeois family to roam across Europe with bank robbers, is one of his finest.

Sure, you've seen movies about likable young criminals on the lam before, and Jacquot certainly has "Badlands" and "Bonnie and Clyde" and maybe Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" buzzing way back in his brainstem. But "A Tout de Suite" is its own thing, a lovely widescreen black-and-white confection whose focus is not so much the romance of banditry as the face, body and consciousness of its unnamed heroine.

This is indeed that tried-and-true French saga, an odyssey of sexual discovery. But Jacquot is restrained in his visual approach; there's some nudity but not much on-screen bonking, even as Le Besco's character moves from a maybe-lesbian liaison with a Parisian school chum to her marvelously handsome Moroccan gangster boy to three-ways arranged in Greek nightclubs. You never feel that you're in the hands of a dirty old man or a misogynist, as in the later films of Bertolucci or Bertrand Blier; this is a sweet and slightly detached portrait, not a peep show.

None of the characters in "A Tout de Suite" have names, which heightens Jacquot's faintly dreamlike mode and the ingenious, almost mythological recapturing of the low-tech Europe of three decades ago. The film's story is archetypal and not all that surprising -- I mean, what do you think is likely to happen when you run away with some cute thugs? -- but that's hardly the point. Le Besco gives an unforgettable performance in a movie that's sweet and sad, formally near-perfect but never cynical.

"A Tout de Suite" opens April 29 in New York, May 13 in Dennis, Mass. (Cape Cod), May 20 in Los Angeles and Houston, and May 27 in Dallas, with more cities to follow.

"Save the Green Planet!": Take that, possibly imaginary alien scum!
I would be profoundly remiss if I didn't mention Korean director Jang Jun-Hwan's delirious "Save the Green Planet!" which is the best film in the alien attack, conspiracy theory, "Silence of the Lambs" rip-off, disgraced-cop drama, deranged circus wirewalker, anti-capitalist parable genre I've seen this year. Then there are the angelic intervention scenes, the egregiously fake kung fu, the poorly animated dinosaurs, and the businessman who is crucified and has to pull his hands all the way off the nails to escape. Ewww!

Directors and connoisseurs of Asian pop cinema are always competing to out-wacky each other, and I'm sure some of you out there in DVD-land have seen stranger fare than this. But what makes "Save the Green Planet!" stand out, at least for me, is that its murderous nut job "hero" Lee (Shin Ha-Gyun), who starts out both scary and annoying in his lonely quest to save the earth from Andromedan invaders -- whom he seems to have invented -- eventually becomes a figure of genuine pathos and tragedy.

Any deranged director, or at least any deranged director from an East Asian nation, can make a movie that combines all genres at once (well, I guess this isn't quite a western), threatens to destroy all life on the planet, and features both a spaceship that looks as if it were carved out of a rutabaga and an angry, chubby heroine permanently clad in a pink tutu. But to do all that and hang on to a core of human passion and possibility -- that, folks, is art.

"Save the Green Planet!" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens May 13 in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., and May 21 in Rochester, N.Y., with dates in Chicago, Seattle and Austin, Texas, to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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