TIME OF FAVOR
written and directed by Joseph Cedar
with Aki Avni, Tinkerbell, and Assi Dayan
runs July 5-11 at Grand Illusion
How weird is it to make a film about Israeli army life in the occupied territories without depicting a single Palestinian? Weird in the abstract maybe, but it's central to the purpose of this year-2000 debut feature by Joseph Cedar (Orthodox Jew, N.Y.U. film grad, and former Israel Defense Forces paratrooper), who avoids the easy, explosive drama of the nightly news to explore more subtle conflicts within Israeli society.
As the movie's hero, army commander Menachem, tells his troops, "War is not always against an enemy; war is first and foremost against yourself." Although made timely by recent headlines, the justness of the Israeli army's current mission is not really the issue here so much as timeless questions of duty and loyalty. Indeed, a midfilm turn toward increased "topicality" is precisely where Time of Favor stumbles.
Menachem (Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni) is an experienced officer and observant Jew in an army elite that's not just secular but pointedly hostile to religious zealotry (perhaps with good reason). Stationed at a West Bank settlement where he's devoted to a charismatic rabbi (Assi Dayan), Menachem overcomes his superiors' suspicions to form an army squad from the best yeshiva students, including his buddy Pini, the rabbi's most brilliant pupil.
"The real battle in being a soldier is to overcome one's own weakness," declares the rabbi, urging Menachem's recruits to forget their personal lives. That theme takes urgency from a love triangle between Pini, the rabbi's daughter, Michal, and hunky Menachem. Played by an actress named Tinkerbell, Michal is the most interesting character in Favor, at once tough-minded and romantic, with a jaundiced view of her father's religious nationalism: "The land of Israel is bought with pain," she says, quoting one of his favorite aphorisms, then adds: "And the more it hurts, the more my father enjoys it."
Unfortunately, Michal effectively disappears from the film—and with her the romantic and spiritual dilemmas she poses to the male characters—when the army sets out on a march to Jerusalem. From there, Favor abruptly devolves into a muddled action- oriented plot that unconvincingly turns Pini into a right-wing terrorist (causing Menachem's superiors to doubt his own allegiance).
Still, the movie is worth seeing for its gingerly paced, talk-heavy first half and for the unusual respect it accords its Orthodox characters. (In one lovely scene, Michal lights Sabbath candles alone, sustaining the rituals even as she rejects her monomaniacal father.) While Favor has been predictably interpreted as a lesson about the dangers of fundamentalism, it's the brutality and cynicism of secular army officers that leaves the more disturbing final impression.