Set in the Gaza Strip circa 1989, at the height of the first Intifada, war-is-hell drama “Rock the Casbah” illustrates the futility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While this first feature from helmer Yariv Horowitz is impressive in terms of generating tension and intensity, the script fails to offer something viewers haven’t seen before — from Israel or the rest of the world. The United King release will roll out on home turf Feb. 21, but outside of co-producer France, fests and the Jewish-interest circuit will provide the strongest platforms.
The action kicks off as a company of raw young recruits reports for duty in Gaza, where a macho commander (Angel Bonanni) and a grizzled officer of a higher rank remind them of the rules of engagement. Their assignment is to “restore order” by quashing any obvious sign of rebellion they see while policing the streets; soon after they start their patrol, they run into a group of rock-throwing youths.
When a washing machine pushed from the top of a building kills one of the soldiers and the perpetrator escapes, the commander taps four of the others for surveillance duty on the rooftop. This boring, uncomfortable assignment proves distressing to the troops, but even more so to the aggrieved Palestinian family that lives in the building below.
As time lags on, the anxious, confused, sometimes trigger-happy soldiers are unsure how to handle the taunting kids who gather in the street below, and the Palestinian family rightfully fears being branded as collaborators. To borrow from the Hebrew, the chaos and feeling of impending fiasco constitute balagan.
When the pic’s focus shifts to the four men on the roof, their defining characteristics and subsequent actions start to register as cliches. In the screenplay co-written by Horowitz and Guy Meirson, clean-cut, quiet Tomer (Yon Tumarkin) is the sensitive one; crude Haim (Iftach Rave) provides some cheap humor with his bellyaching about food and digestive disorders; hothead Aki (Roy Nik) is always ready to fight and continually defies Ariel (Yotam Ishay), the pot-smoking team leader who has only a few more weeks to serve.
Even so, in contrast with classic Israeli war films, the script refuses to idealize the Israeli Defense Forces or demonize the rock-throwing Palestinians. It focuses instead on the soldiers’ human needs and desires (some good food, sleep, a toilet) and their fears. Likewise, the Palestinian family, albeit sketchily drawn, is depicted as both human and humane.
There are a few scenes with a critical bite, such as when Tomer tries to visit an army psychologist who claimed to be available to the soldiers who witnessed the death of their colleague during their first day of duty, but she closes the office before he returns. Further such irony and black humor would have been welcome. Still, the final scene, which depicts Tomer’s company pulling out and new recruits marching in to take their place, epitomizes the conflict’s seemingly endless cycle.
Quick cutting and show-offy lensing attest to the helmer’s background in commercials and musicvideo, and lend the film a youthful edginess. The title comes from one of the songs the soldiers play loudly on the radio to drown out the call to prayer coming from the neighboring mosque.