כנפיים שבורות (Knafayim Shvurot) [Broken Wings] (2002)

Israeli films aren’t something you run across every day, unless you make it a point to (or live in Israel, I suppose…or carpet your floor with them and refuse to walk) but I’ve certainly run across one now. Holy cow have I ever run across one.

With only an 84 minute running time (a mere 80 minutes without credits, 79 without opening credits…) this film just about broke my heart, and I spent most of it still trying to get used to a new lingual sound and rhythm–I’ve heard Hebrew before, certainly, but not spoken conversationally and consistently.

We have here a film where the most important character–as I once heard another work described–does not appear once. There are no flashbacks, there’s a single photo and maybe twenty seconds of home video, but throughout the father of Ido, Bahr, Maya and Yair is the most important character without a doubt. He can be felt in every single scene, as soon as Maya tells us the song that we hear as the film opens is about her father. We quickly learn he’s no longer there, and clearly this is not a positive, nor was it expected. We don’t learn why, how or when very quickly, but we can read in every single character’s face the devastating effects of his passing. Maya is the primary focus of the film, which we see from the opening, where the first words we hear (and subtitles we read) are her voice, singing the song about her father, and we see that she is acting as mother to her sister and two brothers, pulled away from her first gig–which she was practicing for as we heard her sing–to babysit her siblings when her mother must go work a night shift at the hospital that employs her.
Soon we see what kind of effect it has on even the younger siblings–Ido is quiet and reserved, drawing a hideous monster in a nurse’s uniform and staying away from school to play by himself in a drained pool, rebelling angrily against the parents in his life, both his mother and his elder sister. Bahr is less visibly harmed, as the youngest, but she must at the least deal with the effects it has on the rest of her family. Yair withdraws himself from school and his talent at basketball, falling into a bizarre job, handing out pamphlets dressed as a mouse–espousing a philosophy of the meaningless of existence, of the needlessness of any action because of its infintesimal effect on the universe as a whole, calling himself a mouse. Dafna, their mother, is the most visibly depressed in a clinical sense. She is currently struggling to keep life together, working endless shifts, trying to participate in a video dating service, keeping reasonably calm…but only just barely holding it together.

A few characters circle around this family–Gaga, Maya’s boyfriend, Yoram, her songwriting partner and pseudo-lover, Valentin Goldman, a new doctor at Dafna’s hospital, Iris, Yair’s ex-girlfriend and of course a varying number of smaller roles, all bringing some semblance of perspective to the experience. Gaga is simply there; he’s not sure how to treat Maya, but does not shy away from her–he is there and as caring as he knows how to be, but is somewhat nonchalant and possibly out of his depth with this, which is understandable. Yoram is focused intensely on moving his own life along, criticizing Maya for her continued failures to meet his expectations as a bandmember. Goldman is interested in Dafna, but keeps a respectable distance without leaving her unaware. Iris has clearly dealt with her own problems, as we see her exiting the school counselor’s office before Yair enters, and later find gauze wrapped around her wrists. Each one helps in their own way to show the character they are tied to how to move on with life in the face of their loss, how to deal and find something else, or what paths are not right for them.

It’s here that I love foreign films; my lack of famliarity with actors in most other countries (certainly Israel) helps to maintain the illusion of reality, the suspension of disbelief, and my ability to get lost in the story. This is not really a story one…wants to get lost in, for all that we care for the characters. We can’t help it though, for that very reason.

The writing and the acting involved here is so brilliant that we see everything we need to of this family; we don’t see Ido’s self-destructive withdrawal and anger as selfish or childish, we just see a boy who has lost his father at only a decade of life. We don’t see Yair as selfish for his tendency to disappear from home, for his aversion to schoolwork–because he goes to see the counselor, and when she asks why he’s there, he tells her he’s there so his mother can get some sleep. Every time we think he’s gone too far with his philosophy of meaninglessness, he shows how much he really cares for those around him, and we see that this is just his escape, his way to deal with the pain. When Dafna begs Maya to leave her potential career to care for her siblings, we see a mother desperately trying not to destroy her family or leave them without support. We see Maya trying desperately to cling to the hope for a future through her songwriting, but almost always taking on the necessary responsibility. When she fails, we see how hard she has been trying and learn how much harder she has been trying prior. She worries about getting to school, she worries about her siblings and does everything she can for them when she’s the only one. We know that she is at the end of her ropes just like her mother, and that her failings are only human.

I’m glad I didn’t see this the first time I planned to, as I was going to before work, and that would have been thoroughly unpleasant. But, despite that fact, I would adamantly recommend viewing this film–I was reminded of showing someone All or Nothing, and being told “Thank you for showing me the most depressing movie ever made.”

See it.

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