When “Rabies,” the debut feature film of co-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, played the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago, it marked a rare excursion into an action genre film for the Israeli film industry.
With their second film, “Big Bad Wolves,” entered in this year’s festival, it becomes clear that the pair is probably going to mine the vein of horror-comedy for a while to come.
With its mix of bleak humor and gore, “Rabies” seemed to suggest that Israel is afflicted with a culture of violence in which people tend to give vent to their worst fears and deepest wells of rage. “Big Bad Wolves” doesn’t contradict that world view by any means.
The film focuses on the confrontation between three men. Miki (Lior Ashkenazi, who is beginning to look a bit like an overcooked side of beef) is a corrupt and lazy cop who is perfectly happy to beat confessions out of suspects. Dror (Rotem Keinan) is a mousy schoolteacher who is being investigated as a possible serial killer and sexual psychopath who tortures and beheads pre-teen girls. Gidi (Tzahi Grad) is the father of the girl who was the last victim, and he is bent on revenge.
What Keshales and Papushado add to the bloody mix of “Rabies” in the new film is an intense sense of claustrophobia. Where the first film took place almost entirely outdoors, on expansive and seemingly placid natural parklands, “Wolves” is set in a series of anonymous interiors, dimly lit by bare bulbs and the incandescence of the occupants’ fears. They have plenty be afraid of.
Gidi wants to know where the murderer secreted his daughter’s missing head, and he is more than happy to use skills supposedly acquired as an IDF member serving in Lebanon to extract that information. Compared to Miki, whose chief interrogation weapon is a rolled-up telephone directory, Gidi is a master craftsman who makes ample use of a full range of tools. By contrast, Dror’s only weapons seem to be his silence and an impressively high pain threshold. Keshales and Papushado manage to have it both ways; the gruesome details of torture are both explained and depicted, but the film is still filled with some genuine laughs. The trouble is that those laughs are all-too-often choked back in viewers’ throats by the intensity and callousness of the violence.
Therein lies the problem. If all the filmmakers really want is to continue to explore this queasy mix of sadism and laughter, they clearly have the technical chops to pull it off for several more films; but the way that “Wolves” works out its narrative wrinkles is rather predictable. And if Kashales and Papushado want to suggest, as this film does, that Israeli men have become uniformly brutal and acclimated to an appalling level of casual cruelty, that is certainly their right. They would hardly be the first talented filmmakers whose work is based on the notion that all their characters (and by extension all humans) are hiding guilty secrets at great cost to their souls and sanity. But it is hard to see how much farther they can go in this vein (no pun intended). There is more characterization in “Wolves” than in “Rabies,” and the actors, all excellent, are given a lot more to do. But I’m not sure that a third visit to the genre is going to have much to offer.
I’m even less certain why Emily Harrold thought that the role of The New York Times in covering the Shoah was worth exploring in her short documentary, “Reporting on the Times: The New York Times and the Holocaust,” which is part of the program “History Lessons” in this year’s festival. Inspired by Laurel Leff’s 2005 book “Buried by the Times,” Harrold’s film covers pretty much the same ground. As she notes at the film’s outset, between 1939 and 1945, the Times ran 23,000 stories on its front page, 11,500 of them about the Second World War, but only 26 of those front-page stories were about the ongoing forced isolation and murder of European Jewry. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that my wife is a senior writer at the Times and I have frequently contributed to the newspaper.)
Leff herself is a key figure in the film, essentially reiterating the findings from her book. Her testimony is juxtaposed with that of former Times men Ari Goldman and Alex Jones, historians Henry Feingold, Hasia Diner and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Virtually all of the interviewees point out the historical context in which the Times was operating; it was a time in which vicious anti-Semites like Father Coughlin commanded huge audiences on the airwaves and any media “tainted” by Jewish ownership could expect to be savaged by isolationists, German-American Bundists, apologists for the Nazis and high-ranking officials of many Christian denominations. Even Leff herself admits that the Times “reported, reported in detail, reported accurately and reported in a timely fashion” on the Nazis’ war on the Jews, “but it was for the most part buried inside the paper.”
This is a cautionary tale that would be well worth retelling yet again, except that the Times itself has told it, even giving Leff’s book a respectful review when it was published. What makes Harrold’s effort so infuriating is the sheer clumsiness of her outrage. The film opens and returns repeatedly to an elderly Polish-Jewish survivor tearfully asking why the world didn’t learn what was happening in Europe. And it ends with a Jewish-American man from Queens cynically invoking the Times’ slogan, “all the news that’s fit to print.” Given everything that has preceded that last rather clichéd slap, one is tempted to refer Harrold back to a moment slightly earlier in the film, when Henry Feingold remarks, “It’s a little fragment of the story of why the public didn’t care” about what happened to the Jews.
In a significantly lighter vein, the shorts program “Character Witness” includes an eight-minute film by Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg titled “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop.” It gives a little more attention to the Stilt’s career in the hotel business than did the directors’ feature film “Welcome to Kutscher’s.” The short was unavailable for screening at press time, but the story is a delicious one and not nearly as hard on the arteries as the hotel’s food used to be.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 28 at numerous venues around the city. For information, go to www.tribecafilm.com/festival.