Israeli helmer Eyal Halfon steals a page from the multi-character playbook of Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and “Crash” writer-director Paul Haggis in bravura mosaic social ensembler “What a Wonderful Place.” Complex yet easily digestible, hard-hitting but leavened with poignant humor, distinctly Israeli while tackling international hot-button themes, pic will ride Karlovy Vary fest special jury award and Uri Gavriel’s shared best actor kudos to choice fest slots, distinguished arthouse biz and solid ancillary.
In the dead of night somewhere along the Israeli border near the Dead Sea, ex-cop Franco (Gavriel) rounds up a group of female illegal immigrants to be sold as hookers and domestics by his unscrupulous and piggish current employer, local gangster Boss (Dvir Benedek).
Among those corralled is Jana (Evelyne Kaplun), a Ukrainian maid ultimately saved from the brothel by the birthmark on her face and a defiant attitude that rubs Boss the wrong way but has a certain allure to Franco, whose relationship with wife Ahuva (Evelin Agoel), is painted as loving but tense.
Jana’s lost purse falls into the hands of pudgy farmer Zeltzer (Avi Oria), who is fascinated by a photo inside the purse of Jana. Zeltzer has his own tense domestic situation salved only by a good relationship with one of his Thai workers, Vissit (Chredpong Laoyont).
Also in the mix: a ranger (Yoav Hait), who chases Thai poachers in between trysts with Zeltzer’s wife, and a Filipino caregiver (Ramon Bagatsing) for the ranger’s father (Yossi Graber). The caretaker’s also tenuously linked to Franco through his gambling addiction.
Inevitably, the paths of these human chess pieces cross and cross again, illustrating the pitfalls of a changing world and the deceptive surface beauty of that wonderful place.
In lesser hands such an ambitious story would collapse under its own weight. Yet Halfon isn’t afraid to take bold narrative jumps, deftly mixing such brutal elements as Boss’ early rape of an unfortunate new recruit and Israel’s implied exploitation of its large immigrant population with the touching chemistry between Franco and Jana that provides pic’s overarching framework.
By the time the numerous coincidences begin to strain credulity, Halfon’s storytelling chutzpah and clean style carry the day through to an obvious but moving final gag. Only the sad story of in-crisis prostie Julia (Marina Shoif) gets short shrift, though character’s presence does serve to inject some tension into a decision that nearly costs Jana her life.
Pic’s benevolent tone owes much to the complex, magnificent performance of hulking Gavriel as the conflicted cop. A real-life Shrek-type manchild whose growing fondness for his charge prompts him to pass up sex from Jana, Franco’s ongoing battles to overcome his demons are fought largely between his ears. Kaplun strikes just the right tone as the vulnerable yet opportunistic newcomer, while chief among the terrific supporting cast is Oria as a good-hearted everyman powerless to control his all-too-human urges.
Tech credits are fluid and intimate, led by Einat Glaser Zarhin’s no-nonsense editing. Norma Prods. is the Tel Aviv-based shingle behind “Chronicle of a Disappearance” and “Broken Wings.” Composer Avi Belleli sings title song over closing credits.