As forceful as a kick in the jaw, “God’s Neighbors” reps a sharp rebuke of bigotry and male aggression perpetrated under the banner of religious orthodoxy. Israeli writer-helmer Meni Yaesh borrows savvily from genre conventions to portray a young man’s attempts to break away from a gang of religious extremists who terrorize their suburban neighborhood. Propelled by a vigorous narrative thrust and an unflinching but never unsympathetic focus on the protag’s less-than-pious impulses and motives, this assured, provocative debut has strong crossover potential with a subject that transcends its specific national context.
The ironic first scene introduces grocer’s son Avi, aka Avner (Roy Assaf), reciting “May His mercy last forever” from the Psalms in his room, only to step out moments later to beat a group of young men to a bloody pulp for playing loud techno music. He is backed up by his buddies Kobi (Gal Friedman) and Yaniv, aka Lugassi (Itzik Golan), who together form a religious brigade in Bat-Yam, a suburban town wedged between Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
As the gang’s thuggery escalates, Yaesh vividly captures the men’s intoxication with self-righteous brute power (“There’s a higher force, and there’s an earthly force,” Kobi smugly remarks) through raw, dynamic lensing and visceral violence. But the filmmaker also weaves in scenes to remind that they’re regular dudes as well, whether dancing joyously to their own remixed songs, playing backgammon or praising the teachings of their rabbi (Gili Shushan).
Their blatant sexism, racial intolerance and eagerness to pick fights are subtly attributed to sexual frustration. This becomes the catalyst for a fallout when Avner successfully courts Miri (Rotem Ziesman-Cohen), the feisty new neighbor whom they initially try to intimidate for wearing skimpy clothes.
Apart from a second-act lull that focuses too minutely on the characters’ daily lives and religious rituals, the pacing surges with muscular energy throughout. Avner’s growing emotional maturity and increased discomfort with his cronies’ excesses are skillfully developed, with a tension that recalls classic action thrillers in which a renegade hero struggles to break away from the hood. However, since the film is fundamentally about a crisis of faith, its most powerful scene is an introspective one, in which Avner delivers a cri de coeur to God at the beach, culminating in a moving, symbolic gesture.
The pic opens with a quotation from Hasidic spiritual leader Reb Nachman of Breslov: “To the true believer, faith is observation.” It also reflects the helmer’s artistic mantra as he consistently regards his characters with an observer’s neutrality, using extreme closeups to linger searchingly on his subjects’ rage and arrogance, as well as their self-doubt and spiritual longing. The entire cast, particularly Assaf, turn in intense perfs, though Friedman and Golan convey little complexity beyond hot-headedness. Ziesman-Cohen exerts a sensual presence amid all the testosterone, and subtly reveals a tender side beneath her no-nonsense exterior.
Though the pic was shot in a matter of weeks, tech credits have turned out just fine. Shushan’s Moroccan- and Arabic-influenced drum/bass score lends urgency to the action sequences, while his shift to classic strains in quieter scenes supplies the necessary spiritual dimension.