Passions collide in Israeli thriller

April 13, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Time of Favor, this Sunday's attraction at the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, is an Israeli thriller hinging on a potential suicide bombing. But the culprit is not a Palestinian. He is an Orthodox Jew nicknamed Pini (Edan Alterman) - the star Yeshiva pupil of the West Bank zealot Rabbi Meltzer (Assi Dayan) and the best friend and prized recruit of Menachem (Aki Avni), the commander of an all-Orthodox army company.

This fervent melodrama tells what happens when Pini and Menachem both fall for the rabbi's rebel daughter, Michal (Tinkerbell). The result for them is catastrophe. The result for us is an emotional suspense film that is also political to its bones.

It doesn't push a particular program. The writer-director, Joseph Cedar, shows compassion for true believers in the settlements as well as for military pragmatists who trust Menachem to run a crackerjack company - but fear the rabbi's sway over his soldiers.

What this movie argues for is the primacy of private life as a benchmark for any society, whether military or messianic. Menachem faces down his personal fears but can't ignore them, even when he funnels his energy into action; his remnant of independence is his saving grace. Michal recognizes the religious passion of her father's hunger for a greater Israel. But she mistrusts him for viewing the most intimate loss, like the death of a wife, as part of a tapestry of suffering. She knows that if a terrorist killed her, the rabbi would fit it into his vision of Israel paying for its destiny.

Pini, however, has bought into the rabbi's closed system, down to expecting Michal's hand in marriage as a just reward for his accomplishments. Unable to control his grief over her rejection of him (and her attraction to Menachem), Pini sets out to humiliate Menachem, immolate himself and fulfill Rabbi Meltzer's dream of taking over Arab sites on the Temple Mount.

What gives the movie punch as well as pathos is its appetite for complexity. The communal force of the Orthodox fighting unit dumbfounds secular soldiers and intoxicates the audience. Don't get me wrong: the spine of the movie is Menachem's discovery that the rabbi is stealing his soul. But Cedar grants the would-be warrior-saints their due. And the rabbi himself is a brilliant patriarchal bear who may not know his own strength. Michal is still her father's daughter. In the film's most haunting sequence, she leaves home for a dormitory, and prays over the Sabbath table she has set for herself.

Time of Favor screens Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. Admission is $7.

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