An Internet-age Romeo & Juliet tale in which the tragedy is more political than personal, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” adapts Valerie Zenatti’s much-translated young-adult fiction to polished, engaging effect. Nonetheless, bringing to visual life an epistolary novel about the email friendship between Israeli and Palestinian youths tends to make the story’s conceptual contrivance more obvious, and its can’t-we-all-get-along message more heavy-handed. Results will primarily appeal to the book’s target demo, though offshore, this French-Israeli-Canadian co-production faces the usual difficulty in getting teens to sample a subtitled import. Film Movement plans a multiformat North American release later this year.
Traumatized after witnessing a deadly Tel Aviv suicide bomber attack on a cafe, and worried about an older brother, Eytan (Abraham Belaga), currently doing his compulsory military service, teenage French-Israeli student Tal (Agathe Bonitzer) asks Eytan to throw a message in a bottle into the Mediterranean for her. It duly winds up in the hands of several young Gaza men horsing around at the beach; they scoff at the writer’s privileged innocence in asking about the real lives of Palestinians, who in her experience and milieu are identified primarily as terrorists.
Twenty-year-old Naim (Mahmoud Shalaby, “Free Men”) sends a caustic, flippant online reply to the email address provided in the message. But Tal doesn’t give up the correspondence so easily; nor does Naim, particularly when her response arrives during an air strike. He calls her “really naive or maybe even worse, stupid” for being so ignorant of the dangers and restrictions Palestinians endure daily. Still, the two continue corresponding, their rapport warming when Naim discovers Tal is not a native Israeli, but part of an emigre Jewish family from France. He develops a Francophile fixation that extends to language lessons and, eventually, an application for a study-abroad scholarship; these efforts must be kept secret, as any Western-focused activity is viewed with great suspicion.
With the lead characters separated by more than just geography, much attention is paid to their separate lives even as the bond between them grows stronger. The home Naim shares with his widowed mother (Hiam Abbass) is suddenly full to bursting with relatives in flight from provincial bombings; while trying to figure out a future amid severely limited options, Naim is nearly killed in yet another air strike. By contrast, Tal’s problems are fairly lightweight, like deciding whether to lose her virginity to sometime boyfriend Uri (Max Van Oleartchik) and trying to keep this Internet quasi-romance secret from her parents.
The romantic yearning feels strained, too obviously a concession to teen readers’ fantasies. Beyond age, Naim is so much more mature than Tal that one imagines they’d tire of each other quickly face-to-face, and the call for cross-cultural understanding is as blunt as it is well-intentioned. Still, this not particularly sophisticated take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is easy to take, with appealing performances from a large cast and expert handling by Gallic telepic helmer Thierry Binisti in a rare bigscreen outing. Tech and design contributions are solid.