A retired general lies on his deathbed, bitter and alone, prompting his estranged, ultra-orthodox Jewish son to try and save his soul from hell in “A Place in Heaven.” Yossi Madmony’s quasi-biblical story covers the history of Israel through 40 years and three wars, but, like the director’s previous film, “Restoration,” it is, at heart, a film about relationships between fathers and sons. Both character-driven and allegorical, this complex, good-looking, Toronto-bound epic drama should resonate with niche arthouse audiences in North America.
The meaning of the title soon emerges in a tale-within-a-tale that begins shortly after the founding of modern Israel: When a brave, much-admired officer dubbed Bambi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) returns to base after a daring mission, the cook’s assistant, a young rabbi, enviously tells him that he has earned a place in heaven for endangering his life on behalf of his Jewish brethren. As a secular Zionist, Bambi scoffs at this notion and notes that he would gladly give up that place in exchange for a plate of his favorite spicy omelet. Since religious law permits the trade of such abstract concepts as a person’s place in heaven, the cook draws up a contract.
Such impulsive behavior, typical of the arrogant young Bambi, proves to have long-term consequences. Likewise, when he falls in love with Ayala (Rotem Zisman-Cohen, who gets better and better with every film), the only child of a Yemenite rabbi (Gabi Amrani), he impetuously agrees to work for the old man for an entire year and study the Torah in return for her hand.
But another aspect of Bambi’s character is his stubbornness. Although he proves a man of his word during the year of labor, he shows no compassion for his father-in-law and refuses to say Kaddish for him when he dies. The old man’s subsequent curse will also play a role in Bambi’s destiny.
Bambi dearly loves his son Nimrod (drama student Tom Graziani, the weak link in the thesping department), but his obdurate, commanding personality causes the lad to reject his expectations and turn to other father figures. Nimrod ultimately forges a life of his own as a religious Jew, the very thing Bambi most despises.
Although some viewers may be put off by how heavily the writer’s hand shows itself throughout the narrative, Madmony’s ambitious screenplay masterfully merges the epic and the anecdotal. His protagonist, like the flawed heroes of the Old Testament, registers as recognizably human.
The forceful Aboutboul (who also has a successful career in Hollywood with films such as “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Body of Lies”) is poignant as the brilliant military man who defeats his enemies on the battlefield, but who fails the daily tests any father must face. Although the distaff characters seem to remain mostly in the shadows in the pic’s second half, Sophia Ostritsky and Keren Berger impress in small parts as Bambi’s Russian mistress and Nimrod’s born-again wife, respectively.
The craft package is first-rate, with Boaz Yehonatan Yacov’s elemental lensing contrasting the wild nature where Bambi thrives with the interiors where he seems like a caged beast. Editor Arik Lahav Leibovich deserves kudos for his compelling juggling of the pic’s many threads; Ophir Leibovitch’s atonal score provides perfect support.