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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Virgin and the Sabra
by Donald Levit

“Little film” smacks of condescension and, worse, does not define all that much, anyway. The words are a compliment, nevertheless, in the case of writer-director Joseph Cedar’s second feature, Campfire/Medurat Hashevet, the title better translated as “Tribal Bonfire.”

Winner of several international first prizes and five Israeli Academy Awards and official selection for Best Foreign Film Oscar 2005, it is set in 1981, when, partially a consequence of withdrawal from Sinai, the rightist West Bank Settlement Movement took its still-strong hold, including among Cedar’s Zionist family and friends. Although its Orthodox, New York City-born director has lived almost all his life in Israel, the film is not concerned, however, with the Big Theme, that is, politics (and war), but with the personal lives of four people. About individuals’ needing, searching for, the friendship and loyalty found in love, whatever the sociopolitical backdrop, the film is “little” but at the same time more universal than the shifting, often ephemeral tide of nations’ concerns.

Caught like anyone anywhere in her own limiting circumstances, Rachel Gerlik (Michaela Eshet) seeks an out in what is available at the moment, almost convinced of the rightness of the solution, but she is desperate and not fully aware of herself or the implications. What she sees as her problems must be resolved, not in group action, but on the level of her own life, her needs, longings and responsibilities. Campfire does not so much “humanize” oft-maligned Israelis as show, rather, that behind headline news, there are personal issues that have nothing to do with the newsmakers’.

Now forty-two, Rachel has been widowed two years, confusedly trying to find her way while failing to connect with her two daughters, who miss good man and father Shmuel and feel that their mother’s lack of deep love contributed to his speedy death from cancer. The battery dead, too, his Peugeot sits out front, a reminder for Tammy (Hani Furstenberg), just emerging at fifteen but with a shy admirer in Rafi (Oshri Cohen), and slightly older Esti (Maya Maron), who already sleeps with her soldier boyfriend.

Maintaining the fiction that Daddy is alive to prospective buyers for the car, the mother wants to get rid of the apartment, too, so that the three of them can relocate to the West Bank settlement community projected at barren, windy Ramallah. Her reasons stemming from finances and loneliness, she has to convince the acceptance committee of an ideo-religious commitment great enough to make up for the manless household.

Power on that committee of neighbors lies in Motkeh (Assi Dayan) and his wife Shula Kupfer (Edith Teperson), a pushy, finally shallow friend who hopes to fix up an accepted suitor for Rachel, though cautioning that second marriages “need not be fireworks.”

The widow has already just found one, however, without realizing it. Yossi Moraly (Moshe Ivgy) operates a charter white-and-red minibus, has grown portly, resigned and left behind by his three grandmother-sisters’ once adoring children, thinks that God doesn’t plan for misfits like himself to reproduce, is eight years her senior but a naïve virgin who, out-of-character, offers a clumsily veiled proposition.

Nary a Palestinian appears, nor a statesman, only an ill-advised yarmulked adolescent prankster, as the lonely woman finds her path outside of politics and rhetoric. Two Lag B’Omer holiday bonfires represent the opposite poles, one a sanctioned, conservative Bnei Akiva Youth Movement affair, the other a few “geeks and lowlifes” from Rafi’s housing project. At the latter, Tammy is forced into crude sexual groping as her admirer stands powerless and frightened, exaggerated rumors fly about and, “under a [committee] magnifying glass” which would hush up the scandal, Rachel “loses it” even further.

Made for nine-hundred-thousand dollars, Campfire has encountered criticism at home for its subtle comment on the exclusivism of the settlements, and abroad for a failure to live up to Western liberals’ expectations of Israeli self-hatred. Both camps miss the point. Cedar’s center is not groupthink or guilt but the exact opposite: loneliness, and the difficult ability to love and to trust. “Little” themes, but in the end the important ones. 

(Released by Film Movement; not rated by MPAA.)

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