Harvey Keitel, Pavel Lungin Talk Russia and Israel on Set of ‘Esau’

Harvey Keitel, Pavel Lungin Talk Russia
Vered Adir/Ella Barak

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov missed the premiere of his film “Leto” in Cannes this month because he is under house arrest. In January, authorities banned “The Death of Stalin” from being screened in Russia, complaining that Armando Iannucci’s satirical movie depicted “ideological warfare” and extremism.”

But acclaimed Russian-French director Pavel Lungin thinks that such crackdowns under Vladimir Putin could end up being a creative blessing.

“Censorship always brings about some kind of force among the cultural society,” Lungin said. “We have the great experience of the Soviet Union, where Soviet censorship created such wonderful films, like [those of Andrei] Tarkovsky. Perhaps a little bit of difficulty only makes an artist stronger.”

Lungin spoke to Variety on the Israeli set of “Esau,” his English-language debut, an adaptation by author Meir Shalev of his novel of the same name. The film follows a 40-year-old writer who returns to his family home after half a lifetime to face the brother who stole both his love and livelihood. The story is a modern twist on the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis.

Production on the film, which wrapped this month after a one-month shoot in southern Israel, came at a delicate time for U.S., Israeli and Russian relations. Israel continues to bombard Russian-backed military positions in Syria, and the United States continues to investigate possible Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election.

But over morning shots of arak, the Middle East’s anise-flavored spirit, Lungin and the “Esau” cast – an international group of actors including Brooklyn-born Harvey Keitel, Ukrainian-born Israeli actor Mark Ivanir (“Homeland”) and Israeli heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi (“Norman,” “Foxtrot”) – offered a different take on the relationship between their nations.

“Who could not be interested in Israel?” said Keitel, who plays the family patriarch and who took time out from filming to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. “To be in this country – the vibe of the people is something very ‘other.'”

Keitel said that, when he was approached about “Esau,” he jumped at the chance, both because he was eager to work with Lungin and because the international set appealed to him.

“Hollywood is a great idea that hasn’t been fully realized yet,” Keitel said. “I wish every country was making their stories and putting them on screen and sharing them with each other….But right now, America dominates, and it just reduces the possibility of sharing culture in a profound way.”

Ivanir, who was brought to Israel at age 4 by his Ukrainian parents and raised in a home where English, German, Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian were all spoken, said the project gave him the opportunity to work with three of his own idols: Keitel, Shalev and Lungin.

“I’m such a Meir Shalev fan,” he said, “I’ve read all of his books… and Pavel’s films, like ‘Luna Park’ and ‘Taxi Blues’, they were formative….And of course Harvey, he’s a legend. So there was no question that with this trio, I wanted to do the film.”

For Lungin, who is Jewish and speaks mostly Russian on his film set, apologizing constantly for his halting English, working in Israel has also been meaningful. And while he won’t concede that things are harder for artists today in modern Russia, he does go a step further.

“It’s more difficult just to be in Russia today,” he says. “To breathe in Russia is more difficult.”