What initially looks somewhat unconnected eventually comes together with a powerful payoff in “The Barbecue People,” a multigenerational family drama that gains interest because its protagonists happen to be Iraqi Jews. Pic’s rough, jumpy style may hinder its resale value, but the essential “whither-goest-thou, Israel?” message will be meaningful to Jewish auds everywhere.
Ambitious, low-budget pic, which got noms in all categories at last year’s Israeli Oscars and a best screenplay prize in Argentina this year, backgrounds events of the past half-century to highlight changes to one family.
Tale centers on celebrations for Israel’s 40th anniversary in 1988, in the small coastal town of Ashdod. At a local park where there’s lots of meat on the barby, Haim (riveting Victor Ida), an aging Arab Jewish musician with a paunch and a pompadour, brags about his role in the Israeli uprising. His experience smuggling weapons out of Iraq in his kanoon (a big, dulcimer-like instrument), earned him the nickname The Player, and a reputation that his blond, still-handsome wife Naima (cast standout Raymonde Abecassis) and teenage daughter Tikva (Dana Ivgi) are both thoroughly sick of hearing about.
While doing her compulsory army service, Tikva has become pregnant, but when she tries to tell her parents, they’re too preoccupied to listen. Haim is upset because his longtime rival Ezra (Makram Khouri, who plays bad guys in Hollywood pics these days) is telling everyone that he was The Player.
Unfortunately, all the other participants in this phase of history are dead, except for one old coot who moved to New York. Haim decides to find his witness, although all he has is a smudged address, years out of date. His trip to the city — the Bronx, actually — forms the story’s core, and it’s also where things start to get weird.
The English-free Haim is counting on his son Eli (Israel Bright, who also scored the music) to help him in America, but the twentysomething son is getting deported back home, where Ezra is re-starting an affair with Naima that predated her marriage.
What makes all this tricky is that auds can’t make many of these connections until enough flashback pile-ups. Then, repeated segs, a la “Pulp Fiction,” take on more meaning.
Along with the multi-tiered plot, there’s also a man (Igal Adika) hovering around the Independence Day party, who has a tale to convey, in stark black-and-white, about a 1948 battle between Arabs and Jews on the very spot of the picnic.
Additionally, characters — a porn producer, a black maid in New York, and a couple of crusty hit men — occasionally turn and address the camera directly, giving docu-like observations. With that, the plot overload, a hint of tacky melodrama, and some iffy acting in the U.S. section, “Barbecue” threatens to burn out.
But once the action returns to Israel and co-helmers David Ofek and Yossi Madmoni start wrapping up loose ends, all the rewards fall into place. Picmakers are particularly good at establishing intimacy between characters. In the end, auds get a sense of the unique blend of paranoia, hope, and history that unites Israelis of all backgrounds.
Tech credits make a lot of few resources, although Bright’s music could have used fewer synthesizers and more kanoon.