In 1956, Israel Defense Forces recruits repping the country’s ethnic and class differences but sharing a low fitness profile suffer through basic training in “Infiltration,” the fourth feature from Israeli helmer Dover Kosashvili (“Late Marriage”). Adapted from a novel by Yehoshua Kenaz considered to be one of Israel’s all-time best, this powerful, nuanced drama offers a microcosm of the country’s social problems and a corrective to the national myth of a heroic society. Pic will be best appreciated by those familiar with Israel’s complex racial and social hierarchies, and should travel widely on the fest and Jewish-interest circuits.
The boot camp consists of Ashkenazim, new immigrants from North Africa and Europe, Holocaust survivors, secular and religious men from cooperative settlements, kibbutzim, and towns; however, their differing backgrounds may not be readily apparent to viewers unaware of the subtle meanings associated with names, accents and ideologies. Medically disqualified from ordinary service, the enlistees are either physically unfit (afflictions include eczema and epilepsy) or somehow mentally disabled, thus finding themselves on the extreme margins of society.
Among these motley recruits, three main characters emerge: Alon (Oz Zehavi), a gung-ho kibbutznik who is humiliated by his noncombatant designation and continually tells everyone it must be a mistake; Avner (Gay Adler), a handsome womanizer of humble background determined to spend this enforced time on his own terms, even if it involves breaking the rules; and Ben Hamo (Assaf Ben Shimon), an effeminate Moroccan who is ridiculed, bullied and even beaten by the others.
As in so many military dramas, the soldiers’ main antagonist is a superior officer; here, it’s the exasperated, all-powerful, sometimes sadistic Cmdr. Benny (Michael Aloni), whose task is to quash their individualism and harden them into a breed of new Jews capable of holding their own in a tough and violent world. Benny has it in for naively idealistic Alon in particular, a conflict with eerie echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”
Eschewing the first-person narration of the novel, the script (penned by Reuven Hecker and Kosashvili) unfolds in loose, mood-shifting vignettes that sometimes play like absurdist comedy. Most of the action takes place on the base as the men struggle to perform training exercises, yet each of the three main protagonists also has scenes outside the fenced encampment, adding to the viewer’s understanding of their characters.
Directing his second adaptation in as many years (his third feature, “Anton Chekov’s The Duel,”is playing the U.S. arthouse circuit), Kosashvili ably distills Kenaz’s complex vision of the Israeli military experience as a melting pot intended to wipe out any weakness or diaspora mentality.
The strong cast of mostly unknown thesps brings veracity to the story. Shimon nabbed the actor kudo at the Jerusalem fest for his moody, belly-dancing Ben Hamo, while the pic earned the JCC U.S. Marketing and Distribution award.
Meticulously detailed craft credits, particularly costuming, give a sense of 1950s Israel. Josef Bardanashvili’s versatile score mixes martial, romantic and period sounds.