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From Cannes: ‘Ha’Berech’ (‘Ahed’s Knee’) Illuminates an Oppressive Israeli State with Perfect, Ruthless Precision

Dir. Nadav Lapid — 4.5 Stars

Y (Avshalom Pollak) and Yahalom (Nur Fibak) in "Ahed's Knee"
Y (Avshalom Pollak) and Yahalom (Nur Fibak) in "Ahed's Knee" By Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
By Joy C. Ashford, Crimson Staff Writer

“Ha’Berech”’s two leads aren’t supposed to color outside the lines. The first time they meet, they are dressed like perfect opposites — Y (Avshalom Pollak) in leather and black sunglasses, Yahalom (Nur Fibak) in a floral yellow sundress. Y’s eyes are obscured even further by the camera’s blur, while Yahalom’s are crisply focused and wide enough for the both of them. They fall into exaggerations of masculinity and femininity, respectively: He is quiet, reserved, rugged, dominating; she is ebullient, flirtatious, rambling, simple.

Israeli Director Nadav Lapid is a master of detail. Every small tick supports the boxes he has made for his two archetypes: Yahalom's shade of lipstick, Y’s ominously approving encouragements to “keep going” as she does most of the talking. Lapid also chooses to cut most scenes off just before their natural conclusion, never allowing for a fraction of a wasted moment or a touch of imperfection. Lapid also seems more fond of shooting each body part in isolation rather than the person as the whole, so the camera veers to Y’s shoes and Yahalom’s eyebrows. Each studied part is somehow more evocative than the whole, even when Lapid’s intentions seem more to be focused more on art than metaphor.

It’s to Pollak's credit that no matter how much his eyes and emotions are obscured, the audience always has a bearing on his feelings, which are expertly calibrated every time. Every glimpse of his nuanced, idiosyncratic expressions evades audience expectations for how a rugged, reserved character like Y (an ex-soldier and experimental filmmaker) would feel. Fibak, too, grows into her role of Yahalom — at first her performance is all empty smiles and exaggerated ebullience until she gradually shows us that her character knows more than she is letting on.

Lapid’s sharp eye paints a portrait of two different kinds of art lovers and ​​their relationship with an Israeli government that has begun a quiet, furious censorship campaign against many of its own artists. Yahalom, unlike her rural-born parents, is a bookworm who runs a state-controlled library where she oversees the screening of a controversial film directed by Y (who, in many ways, is a projection of Lapid). As Y’s film (and career) launches, it’s Yahalom’s job to get Y to sign an ominous state form promising to create material that adheres only to pre-approved “topics” — the diversity of the Jewish state, Zionism, etc — or give up on a future film career. Under Lapid’s ever-careful, unrelenting hand, the two are thrown into stark relief against each other.

Until, near the end of the film, they’re finally not. The sunglasses come off, once-walled off emotion blurring the opposites Lapid had so carefully constructed.

If a clean contrast were the end goal — misunderstood male auteur against docile state sycophant — “Ha’Berech” would merely have been a work of technical genius. But Lapid has calibrated his paragons of emotionless artistry and mindless subservience precisely so he can unravel them — so he can show in “Ha’Berech”’s final revelatory moments that Y and Yahalom are alike, too. And that no one, governor or citizen, art maker or art critic, leader or follower, is truly safe. The utter precision and rigidity of Y and Yahalom’s polar opposites makes the recognition of their common oppression feel earth-shattering, driving home the true stakes of Israel’s oppressive policies for even the most different of people.

In an interview with Deadline, Lapid explained just how alike he is to his character Y. “We took a decision not to apply [to the Israeli Film Fund],” he explained. “I wouldn’t say I was afraid someone would arrest me in the middle of the night, but I was worried that if the contents of the script would be revealed before it was shot, it would be easy to make the task almost impossible.” So Lapid shot the film in 18 days, on a small budget, with a script written in just two weeks. It’s all the more shocking then, that “Ha’Berech” achieves the heights of technical perfection it does — and all the more important that its message about the extent of the Israeli government’s artistic censorship be heard.

— Arts Chair Joy C. Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.

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