The clandestine love between a young Jewish woman and an Arab mechanic is interrupted by tragedy in “Jaffa,” a stylistically risky departure for helmer Keren Yedaya that reps a disappointing follow-up to her Camera d’Or winner “Or (My Treasure).” Where the earlier pic was all raw energy and unprocessed emotion, “Jaffa” is modeled on semi-glossy Egyptian mellers, but Yedaya lets the air out, leaving empty characters with no connections to each other or the audience. Best seen as a temporary blip in a promising career, pic will likely be given a respectful distance by most fests.
Yedaya brings her two leads, Dana Ivgy and Ronit Elkabetz, together again as mother and daughter, though the dynamic is entirely different. Mali (Ivgy) is the colorless daughter of garage owner Reuven Wolf (Moni Moshonov) and his shallow wife Osnat (Elkabetz). Brother Meir (Roy Assaf), a young man full of rage, is the family’s black sheep and whipping boy.
Mali is in love with (and secretly pregnant by) Tawfik (Mahmoud Shalaby), an Arab working alongside his father Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajneh, in a basic Uncle Tom role) in Reuven’s garage. Since they’re good workers, the boss offers them respect, though not so much that he’d ever approve of his daughter’s relationship with an Arab. Meir, keen to exert any kind of power, is more open about his prejudices, and a heated fistfight with Tawfik ends in Meir’s accidental death.
Mali ends the affair but has the baby, telling her parents the father is a married man best forgotten. Despite the outward show of grief, peace reigns in the Wolf household until, nine years later, Tawfik gets out of the slammer, ignorant of the existence of his daughter, Shiran (Lily Ivgy).
Yedaya’s debt to Egyptian melodrama is even noted in the credits, but her reworking of the form is miscalculated, dampening down the excesses. While the lighting, zoom shots (lensed by versatile d.p. Pierre Aim) and even the opening credits sequence scream “meller,” the spirit just isn’t there; Yedaya may have a Sirkian desire to offer pointed critiques on the unresolved prejudices deep within Israeli society, but her choice of retooling just doesn’t work. Larger-than-life figures are absent, and the lead character, Mali, has nothing inside; it’s hard to believe in Tawfik’s love when his lover is such a blank.
This is partly deliberate: Mali has eliminated her personality in the wake of her parents’ exclusive, demanding love for each other, but in doing so the character, through no fault of Ivgy’s, is rendered dull-witted and distressingly acquiescent. The family’s inability to communicate comes through loud and clear, but nothing ever gets under the viewer’s skin.
Jaffa was chosen as both title and location for its almost unique position as a city — now a dependent of Tel Aviv — where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side in an uneasy, just-tolerated alliance. While this is hinted at in the backgrounds of several shots, the physical nature of the place is rarely felt. Shushan’s music fits the source of influence, but the tunes are under-used, pointing to a tasteful hesitation that may be “Jaffa’s” biggest miscalculation.