Writer-director Dror Shaul draws on memories of growing up on a kibbutz in the 1970s for “Sweet Mud,” a modest study of a mentally unstable mother and her son, who are determined to make a life for themselves on a collective farm. Pic’s efforts to demystify the proclaimed socialist idealism of the kibbutz movement — along with a rather dull episodic storytelling structure — overwhelm its effect as a drama. Sure to stir hot opinions locally, Shaul’s latest won’t travel much more than his previous “Sima the Witch,” though multinational production support may help in select territories.
Story divides into four chapters marked by the seasons, from summer of ’74 to spring of ’75, when 12-year-old Dvir (Tomer Steinhof) has several life-altering experiences. At his bar mitzvah, he must go through a battery of survival tests of his manhood and worthiness as a future kibbutz leader.
This is nothing, though, compared to the challenge presented by his single mom Miri (Ronit Yudkevitch), who teeters on the edge of insanity. Dvir must sleep under a separate roof for children in the settlement, which cuts him off from Miri. Her Swiss lover, Stephan (Henri Garcin), is allowed to join the kibbutz and live with Miri, despite fact that he’s a Gentile.
But annoying neighbor Avner (Shai Avivi) sets off a chain of events involving his dog that forces Stephan to leave and sends Miri reeling into an emotional collapse.
A tendency toward broad novelistic storytelling–which encompasses not only several repeated bits of tender comic relief but also episodes involving Dvir’s older brother Eyal (Pini Tavger) and pretty young Maya (Danielle Kitzis) –robs “Sweet Mud” of a focus. Miri’s drama finally takes center stage in the second hour, with the community’s neglectful treatment of her emblematic of pic’s critique of the kibbutz system.
Steinhof grasps much of Dvir’s determined need to keep his dwindling family together, though he doesn’t appear especially warm. Yudkevitch is too studied in her actorish effects as the disturbed mother, and support cast is pro but leaves little impression.
Like Shaul’s previous features, pic is generally a plain work of cinema. Brief spurts of picturesque crane shots over the green kibbutz fields seem to want to appeal to an international aud but go against pic’s skeptical ideology.
Literally translated title, “Crazy Earth,” is more to the point than awkward English title.