URBAN TALE (**** out of 5) – Israel, 90 mins. Hebrew (with English subtitles) Written and directed by Eliav Lilti. With Barak Friedman, Noa Friedman, Esti Yerushalmi, Zohar Shtrauss, Ohad Knoller and Michal Shtamler
When you’re warned going into a movie for a press screening that the film is provocative it lessens the shock factor to a degree, yet rampant nudity starting with the opening scene and explicit sex scenes might border on pornography for some and by US standards this Tel Aviv based movie earned an NC-17 rating, which means many commercial theaters in the US won’t screen it since many newspapers won’t run ads for NC-17 films. It’s not surprising since even the dialogue or rather typically a series of monologues often seem gratuitous in their descriptions of sexual acts and crossing social taboos.
What seems to be a series of deliberate provocations were numerous and seemed forced and manipulative at times and at times distracted from masterful acting by the two leads Barak Friedman and Noa Friedman (no relation) who play not so innocent teenage brother and sister. The great cast of supporting players often steal the scenes they’re in where they each get to shine with a monologue about their role in Israeli life whether, its a nurse, a police officer, a cell-mate or an estranged father or telephone operator (the most sympathetic character in the film).
Every actor and actress in this well-cast ensemble were awarded close-ups, which allowed each actor to show a great range of facial miming as a response to the other actors in each scene or deliver their own lines with pathos and flair as the two protagonists go on a sexual walkabout after their mother passes away from cancer with the brother being mentored by his jaded married Bible studies teacher and his sister by a girlfriend peer.
The narrative is helped along by documentary style confessions that break the fourth wall and seem sometimes out of place, especially with one last narrative for an ending (which could have been more poignant by ending with the last scene between brother and sister). Maybe the narratives show a lack of confidence by the director or screenwriter that they’re not otherwise telling their intended story to the audience. Otherwise I found that this flick was well directed, edited and produced and shows the capabilities of Israel’s artistic filmmakers after two films from the region were nominated for documentary Oscars (the Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras) both of which portrayed Israeli politics in a less than favorable light.
Even though I enjoyed this movie artistically and found the script and its delivery entertaining, I was conscious before the movie ended that this film was going to be shown in New York City the following week at Martin Scorcese’s FTS (First Time Screenings) and that as harmful as the two aforementioned documentaries could be to foreigners’ perceptions of Israel and Israelis, this film even goes further to portray Israelis as less than sympathetic reprobates except for the aforementioned telephone operator. Yet the talent behind and in front of the camera will surely convey that Israeli filmmakers have the chops to deliver entertaining thought producing cinema supported by a pool of actors audiences will want to see more of that may not have the panache of Hollywood but all of the professionalism and typical of many Israelis with much less inhibition.
This wasn’t my first experience with Israeli film as I used to be a screener for the San Diego Jewish Film Festival and the more Israeli films I see the more I want to see. I hope this cast of actors gets opportunities to show their obvious talent in films with more commercial potential as this film’s sexual escapades and taboos will limit not only how many theaters it shows in but how many Jewish and Israeli film festivals might screen it overseas.
Unlike many Israeli films, this film may appeal more to artistic festivals in the US than to Jewish festivals as it has many elements that might remind viewers of scenes from Kevin Smith’s Clerks or Quentin Tarratino’s Reservoir Dog’s. Yet besides the Hebrew dialogue (with English subtitles) and a few iconic props (Goldstar beer, an Israeli police car, the Tel Aviv skyline at night) the amount of graphic sex and graphic descriptions of sex will probably limit its exposure to audiences so those in New York might want to make the most of their opportunity in March.