Crisis In & Out of the Home; Nir Bergman's Family Drama "Broken Wings"
by Erica Abeel
"Broken Wings," a first feature from 34-year-old Nir Bergman, is the latest entry in the current wave of small but feisty films coming out of Israel (including, among others, Eytan Fox's 2002 hit "Yossi & Jagger" and his Berlinale Panorama opener, "Walk on Water.") The story of a family imploding after the death of their father, "Broken Wings" is striking for its focus on the personal rather than the political -- there's not a single direct allusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict racking the region (a trait shared with other recent Israeli films that either ignore the conflict or treat it ambiguously or metaphorically.) In fact, its navel-gazing oblivion to the larger world makes it the Israeli counterpart to American indies out of Sundance. This is both the film's strength and liability: the struggle of a devastated family to knit together -- conveyed with under-the-radar cool -- packs an emotional charge. But some viewers may find the scope cramped (the film is a mere seventy-seven minutes) and the material overly familiar.
Director Bergman dives into the story in media res, so it's a while before you realize that this family of five is in meltdown because nine months back their adored father died of a freak allergic reaction. This makes for an irritating front-end fuzziness. Seventeen-year-old Maya Ullman (lovely Maya Maron), a budding songwriter, is at a gig singing a mournful ballad, when her mother Dafna (Orli Zilbershatz-Banai) phones with a frantic demand to rush home and look after the two younger kids, so she can leave for her job as a nightshift hospital midwife. In a sequence that cleverly sets up the family dynamic, Maya bikes home, still sporting her black gossamer wings and Goth threads, and seething at her role of surrogate mom -- but grudgingly helps her mother start their crate of a car.
And the scut work always falls on Maya. Hunky big brother Yair is of little help: awash in adolescent nihilism ("You're a speck of dust in an expanding crazy universe" he tells all and sundry), he has dropped out of high school to distribute flyers on the subway dressed as a mouse, and blows off the guidance counselor trying to help him. Meanwhile, six-year-old Bahr has locked herself in the bathroom, refusing to go to her first day of school, unless her absent (and chronically exhausted) mother returns. And to escape his schoolmates' taunts, 11-year-old Ido prefers to videotape himself jumping off a diving board into an empty pool. So the family is a mess. But they find consolation in the refrain, "it really could be worse."
Then, it really does get worse: Maya crawls into her boyfriend's sheets, neglecting to pick up her little sister, which triggers a chain of events culminating in Ido lying unconscious on the concrete floor of the pool in a downpour.
A family working through expressions of grief, each in his manner -- haven't we been there before? And one adolescent sulk, it must be said, goes a long way. Still, Bergman cants his well-used material into fresh forms. The absurd sight of Yair in his mousesuit with giant ears and dragging tail comes to mirror the absurdity of the tragedy that has struck them all. In one inspired scene, Yair and his troubled, sometime girlfriend sit naked on a window ledge flirting with the big leap -- but youthful hormones persuade them to stick around. To compose his group portrait, Bergman works the screen like a pointillist painter: he hopscotches from one quick scene to the next, sometimes so fast, it almost feels subliminal, building up his story from tiny mosaics. At the same time, deft editing and reprises of Maya's sad song knit the film into a single great sigh.
And Bergman, if one can say this, is a filmmaker with a feminine sensibility, bringing to his depiction of family dynamics a delicacy and perfect pitch often associated with female directors. He nails the toxic mother/daughter bond, while celebrating its strength. In a confrontation in the hospital where Ido lies comatose, Dafna and Maya come to blows, and Maya runs away -- but faster than you can say Tel Aviv, they long to reconcile. Stage veteran Zilbershatz-Banai is superb as Dafna, the Job-like matriarch -- seldom has an actress gotten so much mileage out of weariness. And her plight is leavened with humor, as when she distractedly makes a video tape for a dating agency, citing her number of children as 39, instead of her age. When Dafna finally gets something going with an awkward doctor in the hospital, their "love" scene has to be the least romantic in cinema. Generally, though, as in previous Israeli films, the acting style throughout may be too muted -- Lior Ashkenazi, the sexy mama's boy in "Late Marriage," always seemed slugged on the head with a two-by-four. Similarly, the way cool style here becomes as mannered in its fashion as Marlon-style fumpfering.
And if, like other current Israel films, the Arab/Israeli strife is invisible -- the father is killed by a bee sting, not a terrorist -- its very absence makes a statement of sorts. Folks go about their sorry business, struggling to hold on to what they have, Bergman proposes, even with mayhem at the gates. Let the rest of the world see Israelis as prisoners of politics, he just sees ordinary people. And though I can't put my finger on how, the larger conflict is indirectly sensed as deep background to the microcrisis roiling the Ullmans, lending their survival an added urgency.