Melding psychological drama, love triangle and suspense action to mostly winning effect, “Time of Favor” is a thought-provoking exploration of the blurred line where religious devotion, political commitment and personal will collide. Young first-time writer-director Joseph Cedar steers clear of didactic overkill in his finely modulated film, drawing moving perfs from his cast. Pic, winner of six Academy Awards in Israel and the country’s submission for foreign-language Oscar, could reap arthouse shekels with proper positioning from a Stateside distrib.
Cedar, an Orthodox Jew, made a deliberate decision to omit Palestinians from the story, instead shaping his drama as a study of warring philosophies within the Jewish community. “Time of Favor” emerges as an intelligent portrayal of the repercussions of single-minded religious fervor, and of the way the willingness to suffer for a cause does not necessarily translate into selfless acts.
The tale’s catalyst is Rabbi Meltzer (vet helmer-thesp Asi Dayan), the beloved and revered leader of a yeshiva in a remote settlement in the Judean hills. With the somewhat reluctant help of Menachem (Aki Avni), a handsome army officer, the rabbi establishes a military company of men from his yeshiva. Although he’s not an out-and-out fanatic, the military higher-ups, as well as intelligence personnel, eye Meltzer warily, fearing the devotion he inspires could lead to extremist action on the part of his student-soldiers.
The rabbi decides his favorite student, the sickly, delicate Pini (Edan Alterman), should marry his daughter, Michal (Tinkerbell). But the strong-willed Michal, who bristles at the notion of being a “prize” for her father’s top student, is attracted to Menachem and, within bounds, not shy about letting him know. In a lovely scene, they talk amid the dust and debris of a construction site. When Menachem idly makes hand shadows against a wall, Michal flirtatiously joins the game; although they never touch, there’s a powerful, restrained eroticism to their shadow-play.
But Michal leaves the settlement when Menachem is unwilling to disobey the rabbi. In a poignant seg, pic contrasts Michal’s melancholy, solitary prayer in her Jerusalem dorm and the boisterous zeal of Company D.
Rejected, Pini throws himself into the communal cause, drawing Itamar (Micha Selektar) into his suicidal plans to destroy the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on the Old City site that is holy to both Moslems and Jews — the same Temple Mount that Rabbi Meltzer passionately urges his students to redeem for Israel. Believing Menachem, commander of the religious unit, is also behind the plot, the secret service closes in on him while Meltzer assures them that his students understand the Temple Mount is a figurative, not a literal goal.
The hard-to-buy action climax doesn’t carry quite the level of suspense intended; Cedar’s strengths lie elsewhere. Writer-helmer has an impressive grasp of dramatic dynamics and an eye for memorable visuals, particularly in pic’s several sequences within the ancient tunnels beneath the Old City.
Performances are assured and deeply felt, Avni and Dayan responding to the material with understated eloquence. As a teacher’s pet and naive suitor, Alterman is convincing, but thesp doesn’t quite convey the darker depths that fuel his character’s destructive behavior.
At the center of the film is Tinkerbell — lightweight moniker aside, the actress is the most compelling presence here. Her Michal is precocious but serious and straight-talking. Having watched her father place the suffering of the settlers before the suffering of her dying mother, Michal has an equilibrium beyond her years, and her soulful gaze speaks of hard-won wisdom even as it sparks with adolescent vulnerability. Among the strong supporting cast, Amnon Wolf is a standout as the sole secular member of Company D.
Judiciously used music has a traditional, wistful flavor. Tova Asher’s seamless editing helps to propel the story, while Ofer Inov’s crisp lensing is a treat. Visuals are steeped in the deep greens and blues of hillside night maneuvers, the cool grays of subterranean passageways and the bleached light of the Judean desert.