It’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and throughout the day the Scroll will highlight some of the gems Israeli culture has created in the past seventy years.
Perpetually broke, endlessly resourceful, and infinitely charming, Israeli cinema is a great microcosm of the country itself. Beginning with newsreels in the 1940s and 1950s, the fledgling industry soon began creating its own masterworks, many of which, unsurprisingly, focused on war, immigration, and the other major themes of Israeli life. Here are seven of the most essential:
Givat Halfon Einah Ona:
Written by Assi Dayan, Moshe’s son and an artist as ingenuous on film as his father was on the battlefield, the movie is an uproarious farce starring Hagasash Ha’Hiver, Israel’s most iconic comedy trio. It revolves around that quintessentially Israeli experience of miluim, the month or so a year of reserve duty in which most Israeli men serve until they’re in their fifties. Lounging in a remote army base in the Sinai desert, a gaggle of men (and the women who love them) scheme, tell jokes, and enjoy time away from their everyday worries.
Nothing, really, happens in this movie, which stars Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein as two beach bums who sit by the water, hit on women, and behave like utterly charming troglodytes. But anyone who has ever skipped a day of school to go laze on the beach—which is to say nearly every Israeli—would immediately connect with the laid-back vibe. Einstein, of course, was Israel’s most celebrated singer, and Zohar, the revered comedian and filmmaker, has since become a ba’al teshuvah and looks nothing like the shirtless bohemian immortalized on film.
Completed when its director, Amos Guttman, was dying of AIDS, this immensely moving film is one of the first Israeli movies ever to feature gay protagonists, and the first to address the AIDS epidemic. It tells the story of Yonatan, a sensitive young Tel Avivi who falls for Thomas, a New Yorker visiting Israel. Like Guttman, Thomas, too, has AIDS, and his affair with Yonatan is no less tender for being doomed.
When it premiered in 1975, the film helped launched a genre known as “Burekas Movies.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment, burekas being a popular pastry sold for a few shekels to hungry and not particularly discerning people. But these movies, with their reliance on broad humor and ethnic stereotypes and preposterous plots, proved infinitely popular, becoming cult-like hits that have withstood the test of time. Hagigah Ba’Snooker stars the genre’s two founding father, Ze’ev Revach and Yehuda Barkan, as well as a script largely improvised on camera.
Ephraim Kishon’s masterpiece is as universal as it is thoroughly Israeli. It tells the story of a madman, Kazimir Blaumilch, who takes to the street in Tel Aviv one day with a massive drill and begins to break ground. Assuming he’s authorized to do so, neighbors, the police, and other officials all rush to help him, hailing his vision for digging tunnels and turning Tel Aviv into the Venice of the Middle East. The only person who dares observe that Blaumilch is mad is himself committed to the hospital, considered crazy for doubting what is so clearly an ambitious Zionist project.
When the kibbutz refuses to grant the newly deceased Savta Chaya a burial spot, it’s up to her three grandsons to bring their grandmother to a final resting place. Sadly, one of them is a psychotic army officer who turns the funeral into a military operation and the film into one of the best loved Israeli comedies of all time, a parody both of life on the kibbutz and life in the army.
Dover Kosashvili’s drama about the forbidden love between an Israeli man of Georgian heritage and a woman whose family came from Morocco was a surprise blockbuster, considering the fact that it largely speaks Georgian, not Hebrew. But Ronit Elkabetz’s magical performance transcends all boundaries, as both Israeli movie-goers and the judges at the Cannes Film Festival agreed.