There are three tones in actor-director Tzahi Grad’s “The Cousin,” an uneven semi-thriller that starts as a discomfiting story of Israeli-Palestinian prejudice, cranks it up beyond credibility and then inexplicably shifts into comedy territory in the last 10 minutes, just when a lynching appears to be brewing. Maybe building up all that tension and then popping it like a big balloon was meant to allow audiences to feel better about themselves, but letting everyone off the hook after making them question their deep-seated racism is disingenuous at best. It’s a pity, because the first two-thirds work well in exposing the distrust even so-called open-minded people feel about the “other” in their midst, inviting comparisons with “Get Out.”
Grad’s personal investment in the project is high: As star as well as writer and director, he plays Naftali, a version of himself, filming in his own home and casting his two kids Ben and Alma Grad Cohen as his on-screen children. There’s even a poster for his previous film, “Foul Gesture,” in the character’s studio. Plus, he gives humorous cameos to a number of major Israeli actors, presumably friends, such as Lior Ashkenazi, Yossi Marshek and Eli Ben David.
Grad acknowledges that his interest in scratching at the scab of Israeli anti-Arab racism stems from his attempts to recognize and isolate these feelings within himself. As his character says, “My racism is natural, everyone is a racist. The question is what do you do with it? Do you surrender to it or fight it?” Precisely because the question is so important, his swing into comedy neuters the film’s entire premise.
On the advice of his gardener, Naftali hires Fahed (Ala Dakka), a Palestinian handyman, to fix up the studio next door to his house. Naftali is a little uneasy because he expected to hire Fahed’s brother, but the gardener reassures him Fahed’s a good guy, so they go buy some construction materials and then scope out what needs to be done. Soon after they learn that a 9th-grade girl, Yaara (Mai Stanker) was assaulted near where they bought the supplies, and instantly the neighbors suspect the Palestinian. Naftali, an actor-director shopping around a proposal for a reality series that would bring Israelis and Arabs together, prides himself on his ability to rationalize away his prejudices, so dismisses the locals’ concerns, but then Fahed is arrested by the cops.
After reluctantly posting bail, Naftali brings Fahed back to do the renovations, but his wife Yael (Osnat Fishman) isn’t comfortable with this Palestinian guy in the house, especially with the kids around. Meanwhile, more neighbors hear that an Arab stranger is responsible for assaulting Yaara, and they make it crystal clear they want to take the law into their own hands. Pressure escalates quickly, with Naftali now doubting his liberal-mindedness, leading to him lashing out at Fahed: “You’re a lying, hateful, bitter Arab!”
The problem is less that he says these horrible words, and more that such a nasty diatribe reaches this level so quickly. Sure, Naftali isn’t coping well with the way everyone is pushing him into a corner, but this goes beyond mere exasperation and requires more build-up before he reveals the true depths of his bigotry. Until then, “The Cousin” was completely believable in the way it exposes latent racism — it wouldn’t be too hard to substitute American whites and blacks for Israelis and Palestinians, and Grad’s acknowledgment of the inevitability of prejudice when an entire population has been demonized for decades is brave and commendable. It’s just a shame he doesn’t know how to modulate the narrative in a way that takes advantage of the tangible anxiety building on screen and inside the viewer.
The cousin of the title references the Biblical story of Ishmael and Isaac, half-brothers whose progeny became the origins of Arab and Jews. Genealogical closeness should bring the two groups together, but it’s precisely because of their familial proximity that they’re so deeply distrustful of the other.
Certain elements of “The Cousin” work extremely well, from the nicely calibrated contrast between Fahed’s casual yet wary demeanor and Naftali’s self-confident yet genial arrogance, to the paunchy locals banding together like a hick posse to rid the neighborhood of the Palestinian in their midst. Actors Grad and Dakka are equally strong, their naturalism underlining the “normality” of the situation, where it’s expected Israelis will rationalize a hatred of Arabs. And of course some humor, well used, can be a great leavening; only here, it works against the hard-hitting statement it’s been so carefully making.