Israelis, as befits a people who lived in constricted geographical circumstances and are eager imbibers of Western culture, are rabid movie fans. This tiny country can lay claim to 15 film schools with the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School being the most influential, and a café in Tel Aviv that boasts, for better or worse, the name of the director Quentin Tarantino. Although Israel has produced its share of affecting films since the 1960s—Sallah, Three Days and a Child (based on the story by A.B. Yehoshua), and the earlier movies of Gila Almagor and Assi Dayan—starting two decades ago it began creating a body of singular, even dazzling work. These include controversial, hard-driving documentaries—The Gatekeepers (which was nominated for an Oscar in 2013), The Law in These Parts, and Waltz with Bashir—and nuanced examinations of different aspects of Israeli life, such as Yossi & Jagger, Fill the Void, and Late Marriage. Global distributors began taking note, despite the fact that the American audience for most of these films was considered tiny. These days, some of the excitement of moviemaking has moved to television, where Israel excels in creating riveting series, ranging from In Treatment to Shtisel to Our Boys, but the recent Jerusalem Film Festival demonstrated that the medium of film continues to showcase an abundance of native talent.
One of the films that caused a stir at this summer’s JFF was a first, deceivingly quiet feature by Nimrod Eldar titled The Day After I’m Gone. The opening image of a lit-up Ferris wheel set against twinkling lights suggests a moody indie film, all private vision and no intellectual vigor, but as the movie gradually but inexorably unfolds, the opposite proves to be true. The first scene is a close-up of a jaguar being given oxygen in pre-op. A recently widowed 50-year-old veterinarian with a slight paunch named Yoram (Menashe Noy), who works at a safari park outside of Tel Aviv, comes in to perform the operation on the cat, efficiently but somewhat wearily. Yoram, who has a full head of hair and sports black glasses and a small mustache this side of perky, specializes in resonant silences; he looks resistingly at the passing world outside the window of his kitchen.
All this is about to change—or would change, if this were a movie of easy epiphanies and instant transformations instead of being a study in the limitations of domestic relationships and the damage that is incurred. Roni (Zohar Meidan), Yoram’s troubled 17-year-old daughter, an only child, has been missing for three days. “Adolescence, the age of ungratefulness,” Yoram opines sagely to his empathic assistant, who wonders why her boss isn’t more concerned. He reports Roni to the police after the prescribed 48 hours but when he is asked a series of questions about her cellphone—whether she has an Instagram or Twitter or iCloud password—he doesn’t have a clue. When he says defensively “she’s not a kid anymore” the policewoman questioning him answers reprovingly “17 is still a kid.” Yoram returns to his neat, slightly sterile apartment, staring at a blank TV; his daughter returns, ringing the bell and waking him up because she has forgotten her key. He purses his lips disapprovingly but otherwise they barely communicate, as is their wont, sticking to the most basic of statements, like “hello” or “goodbye” or “I forgot my key.” Their other mode of communicating is by phone, where Yoram texts laconic messages like “come eat” and Roni texts back “not hungry.”
Several nights later a team that tracks teenagers who post suicidal messages turns up at Yoram’s door at 4 a.m. It seems that Roni, who has failed to get into a band, has overdosed on sleeping pills and lost consciousness. Yoram resists their assistance, getting into a shoving match. “I’m a doctor,” he says, claiming his turf. “Good for you, sir,” replies one of the team. Yoram waits in the hospital while two ultra-Orthodox Jews volubly pray in the corridor and one of them gives him a religious pamphlet to read, which he promptly ignores. He goes into Roni’s room one night before she gets home and reads an email that starkly announces, “I don’t want to live.” He also meets with a social worker who advises him that “it’s very important to talk about what’s going on” although on the car ride back from the hospital neither father nor daughter says a word. The social worker has also suggested they meet with a counselor but Roni refuses.
When Yoram suddenly suggests that they visit his wife’s family, who live in a village in the occupied territories surrounded by armed security, Roni asks incredulously, astonished by her father’s wish to make contact with his late wife’s family, “Are you high? What did you take?” and then announces that she’s driving. As Yoram packs for their trip he finally empties out his deceased wife’s clothes from the closet; he breathes heavily afterward, as though he’s just buried her remains. On the way to her grandmother’s house Roni broaches the question of what would have happened had she died. Yoram answers tersely, cutting off any intimacy: “It’s no big trick, dying. No one cares anyhow.”
Everything and nothing happens on their visit. Class animosity and resentment abound as Aryeh, Yoram’s hard-bitten brother-in-law (Alon Neuman), who works in a factory and refers to his Arab neighbors as “animals,” needles Yoram about his affluent, cosmopolitan life, asking him if he’s planning to run off to Toronto or get a foreign passport. “How’s your spoiled one?” he asks about Roni. When Yoram tries to give his wife’s clothes to his sister-in-law, she refuses them, saying contemptuously: “She has fancy clothes. Where would I wear them around here?” In between Yoram reveals that Roni has tried to kill herself, which leads to a tragicomic family intervention in which all the members of this fractious clan assure Roni that they love her, leading her to burst out laughing—laughter which turns to anger and tears within minutes. “You have to tell the whole world,” she shouts at her father, “get it out.” To which Yoram yells back, “What do you want from me?” The movie ends with father and daughter driving back to Tel Aviv; they stop at Roni’s mother’s grave on their way out of the village and Roni says, tersely, “I prayed for you.”
The Day After I’m Gone has a cumulative power, touching lightly on the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians as well as the impasse between father and daughter. The camera moves slowly, alerting us to small changes, and the dialogue is impressively realistic. The acting throughout is superb, with Noy infusing the role of the emotionally withholding Yoram with unspoken pain, while Meidan, who is stirringly beautiful despite being overweight and ill at ease in her body, gives the truculent and depressed Roni with a poignant vulnerability. The film has an almost European sophistication in its subtle, underwritten characterizations and visually dexterous images. Nimrod Eldar, who wote, directed, edited, and co-produced this reflective and mature drama, is someone to keep a close eye on.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.