Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bubbling Over

Eytan Fox's Israeli film The Bubble is a curiosity in that it has enough basic flaws to be considered downright bad but side by side with all these faults exists a surprising level of sophistication and radicalism that not only save the film but make it recommended viewing. This bizarre dichotomy is, structurally at least, reminiscent of Israeli society where some very unsavoury reactionary elements coexist with admirably progressive ones.

Fox is one of the progressive Israelis, as are most of the characters in the film, though he is realistic enough to realise that such voices are rare and isolated in contemporary Israeli society. The title of the film refers to the bubble that the secular, cosmopolitan leftists of Tel Aviv live in; the characters are similar to young people in most Western cities, working in graphic design, fancy restaurants, drug-taking, relaxed about sex (particularly gay sex) and so on. The film's trigger occurs when record-store owner Noam returns from his six-month military service at a West Bank checkpoint, meeting a handsome young Palestinian named Ashraf, with whom he starts a gay relationship. Ashraf is quickly absorbed into Noam's circle, as he speaks Hebrew with an Israeli accent (he is played by the Israeli Arab actor Joe Sweid) and is passed off as a Jew.

So far, so Romeo and Juliet. Except of course that the dramatic tension is missing because Ashraf's identity is unknown to the Jews in Tel Aviv and his whereabouts and sexuality unknown to his family back home in Nablus. When Ashraf's cover is blown in the restaurant he's been waiting tables in, he flees back to the West Bank, where his future brother-in-law Gihad, a radicalised Hamas operative, has plans to marry him off to his cousin. Fox and co-screenwriter Gal Uchovsky engineer the plot movements rather clumsily and the film never really convinces in this respect. The young friends also organise a beach party ('Rave against the occupation', as they call it) which they advertise all over Tel Aviv but which manages to attract only about a hundred people.

It is rather in the characterisation and the shrewd political intelligence of the film that The Bubble succeeds. While the young Israelis are sympathetic towards the plight of the Palestinians they have little real understanding of it and are themselves hidebound by their own received wisdom. Fox similarly offers a clear-eyed but sympathetic understanding of Arab family life. The dénouement is something that will have audiences (particularly in the Middle East) arguing over for months to come; some will see it as naïve or even grotesque, others (like me) will view it as a touching and credible synthesis of the tragedy that confronts ordinary people in the whirlwind of political crises such as engulf Israel and Palestine. Fox's film, like its predecessors Yossi and Jaeger and the international hit Walk on Water is unmistakably humanist and conciliatory but it cuts no corners in its analyses of Israeli reaction to terrorism or Palestinian rationale for the same. Its humane portrayal of Arabs alone makes it worth seeing and the opening scene where a Palestinian woman goes into labour at a checkpoint is a tour-de-force.

I also saw Tom di Cillo's latest film Delirious, in which Steve Buscemi's deadbeat paparazzo sees his formerly homeless assistant Michael Pitt rise to fame and bed booty-shaking R&B diva Alison Lohmann. The film is supremely inane in both conception and execution; Buscemi is on auto-pilot, Pitt is his usual catatonic self and you yearn to have both him and a cheap gun within easy reach. A measure of how stupid and sloppily-made the film is is provided by the recurrent sight of the boys getting pissed on what are clearly bottles of non-alcoholic Beck's. And Elvis Costello is in it for some reason; he must owe someone money. A lot of money.