Devoid of overt politics or explicit ideology, “Pick a Card” (aka “Afula Express”) is a new kind of Israeli film: A fresh dramatic comedy about ordinary people who simply refuse to be defeated by their harsh reality. While using her documentary background to great advantage, talented helmer Julie Shles also endows her tale with the kind of enchanting magic one associates with the work of Fellini. Winner of six Israeli Academy Awards including best picture, “Pick a Card” opened the New York Israel Film Festival, and should perform the same function in other destinations of the touring festival. Additionally, the film is a likely candidate for a limited theatrical distribution in U.S. cities with large Jewish and Israeli populations.
Style and content beautifully cohere in this vastly enjoyable film. With seeming effortlessness, Shles weaves a tale, both absurd and exhilarating, of four ordinary people whose big dreams are continuously challenged by their mundane existence.
Set in a Tel Aviv slum, tale revolves around David (Zvika Hadar), a garage electrician from Afula (provincial capital of northern Israel), and his girlfriend Batya (Esti Zackheim), a large but attractive woman who works at a local supermarket. All his life, David has been dreaming of becoming a magician, but his few experiences thus far have proved dismal.
Down-to-earth, the pragmatic Batya presses for an ordinary life, but David refuses to give up his dream. Instead, he links up with Shimon (Aryeh Moskuna), a Romanian immigrant who’s an expert magician. For her part, Batya gets solace from Vickie (Orly Perl), a young woman who lives in their shabby building.
Shles and Amit Leor, who wrote a most credible script, introduce some obstacles as each of the four characters undergoes an emotional journey toward greater maturity and better self-understanding. In the manner of classic Stateside screwball comedies, the couple bicker, reconcile, bicker again, split and ultimately reunite in a satisfying way.
Utilizing a remarkably mobile (often hand-held) camera, Shles observes in an intimate and penetrating way the fabric of her characters’ existence, based on an almost irreconcilable gap between dreams and reality. While providing a detailed account of how people actually live, she doesn’t neglect some larger, more significant questions, such as the importance of dreaming “impossible” dreams, the wonder inherent in everyday life, and love as a form of magic. But the beauty of her film is that these issues are almost flawlessly submerged in an extremely fluent narrative.
Ensemble acting is of a high quality. Leads Hadar and Zackheim acquit themselves with believable, engrossing performances that to a large extent rely on their non-actorish looks. Using a slangy, street-smart dialect, they make for a nontraditional but extremely appealing romantic couple. Good supporting work also comes from Moskuna, as the pro magician, and Perl, as the sympathetic neighbor.
Considering the budgetary constraints, tech credits are impressive, particularly Itzik Portal’s restlessly observant camera; Maor Kesher’s crisp editing, which accentuates the changeable tone from scene to scene; Eva Gronowitz’s art direction, which endows the setting with a plausible, nonglamorous look; and Yuval Shafrir’s score, which contributes to the right balance between gloomy misery and magical realism.