Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Kino Lorber releases the film in theaters on Friday, March 18.
When writer-director Nadav Lapid was doing press for his Berlinale-winning “Synonyms” in 2019, he told a funny story about his conflicted approach to the Israeli notions of masculinity and national identity that rage across his films: When his sister-in-law had a baby boy, she asked him for advice as to whether or not they should circumcise the child. “I totally understand if you don’t want your son to be Israeli,” Lapid told her, channeling his late mother’s lifelong hope that her children would leave the country behind. “But if you’re staying in Israel, then be Israeli.”
Cut to: Tel Aviv a year or so later, when Lapid and his girlfriend welcomed a baby boy of their own. Suddenly, the foreskin was on the other foot (so to speak), and he found that some things are easier to prescribe than they are to practice. “When thoughts become facts, sometimes they become very, very complete facts,” Lapid rationalized about the choice to hold off on the one-way ritual. “So we just said ‘Okay: Let’s decide not to decide.’” Laughing, he recognized how that epitomized a Jewish way of thinking in its own right.
While all of Lapid’s films reflect that fraught ambivalence towards the suffocating idea of Israeliness (“Synonyms” revisits the period in his twenties when a young Lapid fled to Paris and violently attempted to shake off the Hebrew language after convincing himself that he’d been born in the Middle East by mistake), none of them have used it as an excuse. Likewise, while all of Lapid’s films clench and spasm with the frustration of an artist whose homeland is too wild and extreme to fit inside the lens of a camera, none of them have confronted that frustration head-on. Not until now.
This — more than the palpable urgency of its production, the unmoored digital photography that made it possible to finish the shoot in 18 days, or the uncharacteristic focus on the stagnancy of bodies rather than on their strength — is what separates “Ahed’s Knee” from anything Israel’s most vital auteur has made before: It’s a film about a filmmaker grappling with the impotency of a lost cause. Lapid’s ultra-personal cinema has never been presumptuous enough to think that it could help save Israel from being swallowed into the Dead Sea. But this, angrier than his earlier work yet strangely also more soft-hearted, is his first movie to resign itself to life aboard a sinking ship. It’s less concerned with survival than it is with how people manage to keep their balance and stay on their own two feet as the whole country rolls to the right underneath them.
If “Synonyms” was a howl, “Ahed’s Knee” is the spittle that was still left in Lapid’s mouth when it was over. It’s a smaller and less electrifying film — as contained and implosive as its title’s reference to Éric Rohmer would suggest — but also one that cuts to the heart of Lapid’s visceral genius and cauterizes the open wound at the center of his body of work. In many ways it feels like a capstone for everything he’s done so far, while in others (especially its knotted generosity) it seems to point a new path forward for one of the world’s most irrepressible filmmakers.
It starts with the auditions for a movie that Lapid himself would never think to make. Y (choreographer Avshalom Pollak as Lapid’s brutish proxy) is furtively trying to cast a drama about Ahed Tamimi, the real-life Palestinian activist who became a household name on both sides of the border after her protest against Israeli police inspired a lawmaker to tweet that the 17-year-old girl should be shot in her kneecap. Money for the movie could be hard to come by now that the Israeli Film Fund has begun withdrawing its support from subversive projects, but Y is famous enough to push the project across the finish line (his last film played in Berlin!). Still, he doesn’t understand the extent of the country’s growing censorship problem until he travels to a small town in the Arava desert for a screening of his work and spends a day with his cheery young liaison, a librarian who reports to the Minister of Culture.
Her name is Yahalom (Nur Fibak), she’s one of Y’s biggest fans, and the sexual tension between them immediately borders on parody; Lapid’s restless camera frames their faces within inches of each other, and the blocking eventually becomes so full-contact that Y’s big speech to Yahalom feels like more of a Pina Bausch pas de deux than a monologue. Y may share a viewer’s anti-Zionist sentiment, but he’s also an asshole who chats up strangers like every person he meets has to audition for him. He demands their life stories, only to tune out the moment they start talking. Yahalom, on the other hand, is a radiant flower in the middle of an arid hellscape, and we like her even though she admits to being a stooge for the government. More to the point, we sympathize with the conditions of her complicity: Yahalom’s unbridled love of books led her to become a librarian, unaware that her success in the job would soon force her to police them.
Most of this story concerns Y and Yahalom’s charged time together during the day that follows, though Tamimi’s knee — almost never mentioned again — remains potent symbolism in a movie that repeatedly fixates on extreme close-ups of the body parts that most directors tend to ignore. Lapid’s shot compositions are as valuable to him as righteous speeches are to Aaron Sorkin, and it’s wild to see all of the different ways he arranges for the balls of Y’s feet or the crook of Yahalom’s neck to find their way into extreme close-up (“Just pay attention to the style,” Y instructs his audience). Tamimi’s knee, a symbol of strength and servility in equal measure, therefore becomes something of a Rosetta stone for the rest of the film that uses it as a namesake, as Lapid wrestles with the cost of flexing in the face of an oppressive government, and also the value of bending when the only other option is to break.
Not that it’s always so easy to divine the difference. Y, in his leather jacket and dark sunglasses, affects an insufferably performative cool, but his voice softens when he sends video of the local sites to his co-writer mom as she dies from lung cancer back home (Lapid’s mother edited his first three features, and passed shortly after she finished cutting “Synonyms”). Not even Y’s own spiteful memories of his army service can be absolute, as the possibility exists that they’ve been corrupted by resentment over the years since; a long story he tells Yahalom in the middle of the movie, obviously indebted to “Beau Travail” even before Yahalom makes the connection to “Billy Budd,” only arrives at its point when it’s suggested that he may have mislead her about the details.
Human screams bleed into jet engines, a civilian motorcycle tears through the streets of Tel Aviv like an air raid, and the most intense sexual contact in a movie where no one takes off their clothes transpires through militaristic violence. It’s hard to divine between resistance and complicity when you can’t tell where a sound is coming from or what you’re even looking at (Lapid’s camera lives on a swivel and takes obvious pleasure in disorienting you from the simplest actions, as “Ahed’s Knee” often feels like an entire film shot in the style of the hectic iPhone footage that was strewn across “Synonyms”).
That line-blurring ambivalence between righteousness and cruelty extends to the winking — and eventually tiring — ferocity of the movie’s tone, and also to the meta-narrative around it, as Lapid got the idea from a screening like the one that Y attends, and decided not to publicly call out the librarian he met for laundering the government’s new censorship tactics. He even signed the form promising that he wouldn’t stray from any pre-approved topics during the Q&A. And yet, the very existence of “Ahed’s Knee” would seem to put that woman on blast, even if the film’s “we all know this country is finished” mentality softens the blame. It wouldn’t be a Lapid joint if he didn’t have some of his own skin in the game.
Such is the nature of his cinema. There’s a scene of male soldiers moshing their sexual energy together, and another where Y wanders through the arid desert bopping to the sounds of Vanessa Paradis’ “Be My Baby.” It’s all clashes and collisions and the violent tug-of-war between heart and mind that happens inside real people living among the ruins of fascism.
“Maybe there’ll be a miracle” is a constant refrain, but this isn’t really a movie that believes in such things. At least not in the “turning water into wine” kind of miracle. It might allow that someone can tunnel out of their own helpless anger and extend a measure of redemptive kindness to the people who are drowning alongside him, but even that is unclear. It’s enough to recognize that most people are just doing what they have to in order not to fall to their knees and cry, and maybe to find a shared bond in the strength that can take. That too is nothing if not a Jewish way of thinking.
“Ahed’s Knee” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.