Jewschool was proud to have sponsored the best of Israeli documentary films showing at the Other Israel Film Festival, the largest festival devoted to the history, culture, and identity on the topic of minority populations in Israel.
Read all of Jewschool’s film reviews from this year’s 10th anniversary festival here — and we look forward to seeing you there again in December 2017.
There is a scene late in Harmonia in which the overbearing conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra exhorts his young son to play his violin in a manner somewhere between restraint and outburst, between order and chaos. The conductor is Abraham, his son is Isaac, and the tension he describes permeates the entire film. It is Isaac who embodies safety and restraint, and his half-brother Ben, AKA Ismail, who seems dangerous and out of control.
If you’ve already guessed, based on the character names, that the film is Biblical allegory, you’d be right. Abraham is married to Sarah, who plays first-chair harp in orchestra he conducts and seems unable to have children. They accept third chair horn player Hagar’s offer to conceive a child for them with Abraham. They name the baby Ben, but eventually he will be called Ismail.
But it does not take long to see that writer-director Ori Sivan has given us a retelling of Abraham and Sarah’s saga that is far from simplistic. His version is surreal, constantly unsettling, and marries some of the darker elements of the story with a gothic horror sensibility. There is a general sense of unease punctuated by hard edges throughout – abrupt edits, creepy set decor, lurid colors, and extreme close-ups of bone-chilling stares. Because of this, when deeply loving feelings finally burst onscreen after all of that icy buildup, the warmth is so palpable that you feel as though the film itself may melt.
In transferring the story to modern-day Israel, Sivan wisely infuses the melodrama with larger societal tensions plaguing Israel today. Ben-cum-Ismail is an outsider in Sarah and Abraham’s household, and his character’s alienation embodies that of Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. His biological mother, Hagar, is from East Jerusalem, and she is shown early on speaking Arabic with her father. The half-Arab child she gives birth to is then raised in an affluent Jewish Israeli household, and while this is not the ostensible reason for his discomfort, the symbolism of it cannot be missed. At the same time, it never feels heavy-handed.
The use of music goes beyond the specific pieces the characters play. It is the way they play them that gives the musical interactions here real suspense. Those with a deeper knowledge of music than I have will probably have a deeper experience of the film, but even with my extremely limited knowledge of classical music, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of how a character would play a line of music. In music, as in life, you want to hit the right note somewhere between sensible restraint and passionate chaos.