Sunday, March 27, 2011

Disengagement (2007)

The problems of a nation are paralleled in one family.  Ana and Uli are step-siblings, reunited by the death of their father in France.  Ana has been raised as a Westerner by the New York born father, and Uli was adopted shortly after the father divorced his mother.  Uli was raised on the Gaza Strip.  In France, the siblings enjoy each other’s company.  We learn that, apparently, the father was not a very loving man.  He did not want Uli’s mother to move to Israel and had since lived his life apart from Uli.  Ana has no ties to her Jewish heritage.  Ana is a frivolous, flirtatious woman with no ties to anything, except an erotic, intense interest in her half-brother.  The death of their father reveals a secret long forgotten: Ana had a child at a Kibbutz many years ago and unbeknownst to all the father has spent a lot of time with the girl in Israel.  In order for Dana to receive her grandfather’s inheritance Ana must bring it to her herself.

For those unfamiliar with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Disengagement might be confusing.  I myself have only a superficial understanding of the conflict, but as I understand it after WWII when the allies were dividing up all of Nazi Germany’s conquered lands, it was seen fit to give the land of Israel to the Jewish people.  “A land without a people for a people without land” was the mission statement; only the Palestinians had been living in the Holy Land for centuries and were forced out in a global effort to atone for the misdeeds against all Jews in WWII.  It was an immoral decision, politics and religion aside, since millions of people who had committed no crimes were forced into an area at the edge of the country, and since then lives have been lost and hatred spews on the Gaza Strip.

One does not need an opinion as to which side is right.  In fact, neither and both are.  What Disengagement makes clear in scene after scene is that there are only losers in this conflict. 

When Ana arrives in Israel she is forbidden to enter the same Jeep as her brother.  This is the first in a small series of events that forces her to shed her thin skin.  Juliette Binoche, only the greatest living actress, plays Ana in a curious way.  The beginning scenes in France are too long.  Part of why they feel this way is that Binoche is almost unbearable to watch.  Her voice is so odd, shrill and high-pitched.  It’s clear her accent is more American that her normal speaking voice, but I think she and director Amos Gitaï made a very bad decision.  I said Ana is a frivolous woman but that is an understatement.  When we first meet her she is annoying, and Binoche is giving a bad performance.  I was shocked since she has been perfect in all the movies I’ve seen.  What Gitaï does is create a contrast, showing Ana before her introduction to the problems of the Middle East and after, having been involved in disengagement, the process of removing a group of people from their homes.  This contrast, however, is very short sighted.  Just because Ana is a Westerner doesn’t necessarily make her carefree and vapid.  Many Americans don’t have a clue as to the problems of Israel, but in all fairness the problems are too many to follow and people have lives and concerns of their own to deal with.  This character is more archetypal.  That doesn’t excuse the material.  It would have benefited from a more leveled depiction of a human being unfamiliar with these problems.

While I was disappointed in the first half hour of the film, once Ana and Uli, played by Liron Levo, arrive in Israel the film becomes terrific.  It is a political drama.  Not a thriller; director Gitaï carefully crafts an even playing field where every human being, Israeli and Palestinian, are decent, loving people.  Uli, we learn, is an officer for the Palestinian army, and Gaza is going through disengagement—all the Israelis are to be removed from their land.  No one can claim to hate the other side, and this is the stupidity Gitaï revels in pointing out.  The people respect each other.  The Palestinians soldiers are given sever orders to not injure the Israelis.  The Rabbi offers his love to Uli just before the gates are torn open and the soldiers perform their duties.  Stuck in the middle is Dana, Ana’s forgotten daughter.  An Israeli, everything she has in life, her garden, her students, will all be taken away from her.  Dana’s reunion with her mother is brilliantly staged.  Ana circles around the school playground.  She knows which teacher is her daughter, and Dana recognizes Ana from the photographs her grandfather showed her.  Dana touches her mother’s face and they hug.  Few words are shared, but because this situation is so understandable, the tears from both actresses are very well felt.

Unavoidable in any anti-war film is the view of the soldiers.  In a visual medium they suffer the most because we see them perform their duties even when, in the case of Disengagement, they hate what they have to do.  I wish there was a way to fix this problem.  There is a way, by depicting the ridiculous discussions of the politicians or rebels that decide the orders, but in an intimate film like this these scenes would distract from the material.  It’s a shame because Uli is a loveable person.  Liron Levo is a revelation here.  He is one of the few male actors alive that embodies humility and strength on the screen.  The finale reunites step brother and sister, just after Dana is lost in a van carrying out the Israeli civilians.  When once their friendship was so strong Ana detests the man in uniform before her.  He reassures her they will find Dana, but all Ana can scream is, “Leave me alone.”

One of the most heartbreaking images appears on the edges of the frame.  When a reading of the Torah is disrupted by Uli and the Palestinian soldiers, a Jewish worshiper, as he is being removed, hugs tightly the soldier forcing him out.  I was so struck by this image, so brilliantly on the fringes of the film, and it has so much meaning.

Disengagement (2007)
Director: Amos Gitaï
Writers: Amos Gitaï, Marie-Jose Sanselme
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Liron Levo and Jeanne Moreau
Israel / France
In Hebrew, English, French, Italian and Arabic
Runtime: 113 minutes

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