A Real Israel: The Living, Breathing Cinema of Amos Gitai

Yael Abecassis and Yoram Hattab in “Kadosh”

We’re never at a loss for conjuring up preconceptions of Israel.  Lightning rod of Middle Eastern conflict, is Israel a fragile religious state in threat of being engulfed by hostile neighbors, or a Western-backed military power that fosters its own ethnic intolerance? These are the basic conflicting concepts fed to us by the mainstream media, the result being that we often see Israel and it’s people in abstract terms.  Israelis are never just “ordinary people” like us but members of one side or another of the region’s conflict. Amos Gitai, Israel’s greatest filmmaker, has spent a career attempting to complicate our generalizations of Israel, telling its stories at ground level.

Gitai rejects the type of mythmaking and grand statements embraced by the news media, politicians, and even other films.Instead he is interested in people who don’t make headlines, but who live, feel, and struggle much like we do. His films present people and places so vividly and poetically that one rightly sees them as genuine re-enactments of a way of life, though one that leaves us with a more complicated, less certain view of Israel’s reality.

Kadosh offers one of the most thorough analyses of religious conservatism on film. The film tells the story of two Orthodox Jewish couples to show what is allowed and what is restricted in their community, while revealing its disturbing obsession with exclusivity and the status quo.

Watch Kadosh on Fandor:

Meir (Yoram Hattab) and Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) are in love but forced to divorce when unable to have children (a prerequisite for marriage within the community). Rivka’s sister Malka (Meital Barda) is forced to marry an Orthodox Jew though she is in love with another man outside the community. The film’s title literally means “sacred” but connotes something more like “set apart,” hinting at how the divide between inside and outside generates religion’s power.  Avoiding simplistic judgments, Gitai prevents us from seeing this power as merely delusional or repressive, placing these characters’ conflicting emotions of love and faith front and center. This inside-outside polarity penetrates all aspects of the community: in one scene, Rivka describes her first experience of sex to Malka by recounting how her husband’s clothes were shed, one after another, to intense effect.

Many elements contribute to the film’s dramatization of people chafing at the restrictions of their chosen way of life. Louis Sclavis’ soaring clarinet lines are both defiant and a little sinister, suggesting an ever-present itch of humanity to break free from boundaries.Similarly, Gitai’s camera conveys a philosophical and political strategy: his long takes implicitly acknowledge the ineffable passing of time, naturally clashing with the community’s desire to freeze time and stay as they are. In the end, the community’s stasis is portrayed as tragic. In a stunning final shot, Gitai’s camera elegantly pans from Malka to a long shot of the city, shifting our attention from the particularities of this one woman’s experience to society at large.

According to Gitai, the film has been circulated throughout the Arab world and shown by feminist groups in India, hinting at how its themes extend far beyond Israel and Orthodox Judaism.

Gitai eschews treating cinema as a medium for drama that reduces life to plot points and words to thematic messages.  Instead, using long, uninterrupted shots, Gitai carves out slivers of raw time to open a portal to life, raw and immediate.  Sinuous and flowing, these shots snake through space and remind us of Gitai’s training as an architect, which has informed his view of cinema; as with architecture, “you build a universe from your imagination.” But the result is something much more organic than a building.  Gitai’s shots breathe with the ebb and flow of a cantor’s singing, or a poet’s recitation. Each shot comprises the cinematic equivalent of an entire breath, producing a physically human connection to time.

Trevor Link lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about film at his website Journey by Frame. He is also a screenwriter and aspiring filmmaker currently working on a feature-length screenplay.

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.