Israeli-born director Amos Gitai takes potentially timely, hot-button material — a bunch of Jewish refugees from Europe arrive in conflict-torn Palestine a few days before the creation of the state of Israel — and turns it into a largely dull history lesson in “Kedma.” Pic is stripped of any backgrounding, peopled with archetypes rather than fully-drawn characters, and features self-consciously arty direction that gets in the way of story-telling. As a result, it looks unlikely to colonize many theaters beyond the festival circuit. Any distrib looking to capitalize on interest in current Israeli-Palestinian tensions is likely to be disappointed: The political stance of “Kedma” is about as middle-ground and uncontroversial as you can get.
Coming from a director who’s made a career out of docus and features probing social injustices, “Kedma” is studiously even-handed: Pic has a strong feel of being shot from the perspective of an outsider rather than a passionately engaged filmmaker. Rarely does the movie spring dramatically to life — Gitai seems more interested in orchestrating elaborate, Theo Angelopoulos-like takes than letting the story or characters breathe naturally — and when it does, it is in theatrical speeches which briefly fizzle but then die.
The viewer is never told the time or place of the movie, or any background on the political situation. But, according to press materials, the pic opens on May 7, 1948, on an old cargo freighter, the Kedma, just off the coast of Palestine. Via a single take lasting some seven minutes, the audience is introduced both below decks and on deck to several of the Jewish refugees crammed on board, including a Pole, Janusz (Andrei Kashkar), and a Russian, Rosa (Helena Yaralova).
After another extremely long take showing them disembarking into rowing boats, the refugees land on a strip of coast where both fighters from the Palmach (the Jewish underground) and soldiers of the British Army (shown, rather incongruously, carrying a Union Jack) await them in the undergrowth.
The Brits are within days of leaving Palestine for good and make only a half-hearted effort to stop them entering the country; meanwhile, the Palmach recruits, led by the hard-nosed Mussa (Juliano Merr), succeed in bundling about two dozen refugees together and finding a hiding place.
A few characters start to develop individual profiles as they recount stories from the War: Roman (Roman Hazanowski) tells of escaping from the Jewish ghetto and being robbed by a Pole; a young cantor, Menahem (Menachem Lang), who’s lost both his parents, breaks down in rage and frustration. At exactly the halfway point in the movie, Gitai inserts a slow fade to black, as night falls and the first day ends.
Many viewers may be confused by this point, as almost nothing of the historical situation has been explained and only a couple of the characters have developed any individuality. Also, either by design or from budgetary constraints, the film has a semi-abstract feel, with just a few actors and a lot of off-screen noise and action representing a particularly convulsive period of history.
There’s more meat on the bone in part two. The refugees wander around, at one point almost getting into a fight with some Arabs; are armed and flung straight into action against an Arab village that is holding up a Palmach relief convoy on its way to Jerusalem; get into an argument with a feisty old Palestinian; and finally move on.
Pic has only three scenes — all in the second half — where the script briefly catches light. The first, when the Brit-fleeing refugees meet the Israeli-fleeing Arabs and almost come to blows, is ironic.
Much more substantial is a long rant by the old Palestinian, Yussuf (Yussef Abu Warda), whose village has been gunned and donkey stolen by the Israelis: Starting as a legitimate complaint of his land being “stolen,” his monologue (in literary Arabic) later takes on a prophetic quality, as he threatens the Palestinians will stay “like a wall,” wash their “masters’ dishes” and raise “generations of rebellious children” to torment the Israelis.
Last of the three issue-heavy scenes is a long single take that closes the picture — an interminable rant by Janusz, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that puts the Jewish case, but in maudlin language rather than the Palestinian’s aggressive vocabulary. “Suffering is what makes us Jews. We don’t master our destiny,” cries Janusz. “What an admirable, awful people!”
“Kedma” is neither admirable nor awful; instead, it is a bloodless rendering of a passionate period in 20th-century Middle East history. The crusading zeal of Gitai’s earlier films is absent, and the combat scenes lack the sheer deadening power of “Kippour.”
Pic is dominated dramatically by three thesps — Merr as the all-action, no-nonsense Palmach leader, Moni Moshonov as a wise old member of the underground, and Gitai regular Abu Warda as the never-say-die Palestinian. As Janusz, Kashkar is better in his earlier scenes than the later, more emotional ones; Lang, as the young cantor-turned-warrior, is given a rather cliched role and few chances to develop it.
Technically, pic is OK without being anything special. Yorgos Arvanitis’ lensing plays down the beauty of the landscape (though the action is set in May, pic was shot last December-January, resulting in a strangely wintry look) and the use of deep, chordal music at start and finish bookends the movie in melancholia.