Judging from the first two installments of Yaron Shani’s “Love” trilogy, it’s safe to say the Israeli director has a fatalistic approach when it comes to matters of the heart. In “Stripped,” he juxtaposed a woman suffering the aftereffects of rape and a teenage boy discovering the social signifiers of masculinity. Now, with “Chained,” he focuses on an abrasive cop with a pathological need to subordinate everyone to his ideas of right and wrong, including his wife and step-daughter. As in the earlier film, Shani workshopped the story for months with non-professional actors who, press notes state, are playing versions of themselves. The result is a powerful, often uncomfortable scrutiny of machismo given free rein through a policeman’s uniform, and a bleak picture of the meaning of love.
With “Stripped,” “Chained” and the upcoming feature “Reborn,” the titles alone are a giveaway to Shani’s conception of “Love.” Though each is a standalone work, and the director insists they don’t have to be seen in any particular order, marketing them as a trilogy will certainly help festival play; their tight release schedules — the first premiered at Venice, the second in Berlin, and one can imagine where the producers hope to premiere the third — mean they can be screened as a package. How that might translate outside of showcases, however, is difficult to assess.
Publicity is emphasizing Shani’s method of mining his cast’s experiences and emotions, using them to guide a script that clearly contains a fair amount of improvised material. The results are occasionally repetitive but more frequently impressive, especially in the way the dialogue of the protagonist, Rashi (Eran Naim), zeros in on perceived hesitations or weaknesses and slams into arguments with the power of a bulldozer. The character’s sophistry, handmaiden to his bullying, is so well-practiced that the viewer sits back in wonder at the skill.
Rashi has had a rough 12 hours: He’s arrested a child molester, and then joined his pregnant wife Avigail (Stav Almagor) at the obstetrician’s, where they discover the fetus is dead. After trying so hard to have a baby together, it’s a hard blow, especially since he knows that, unlike so many people, they’d be a great parenting team. Or at least, that’s what he believes; the truth is, he’s not doing such a great job with his step-daughter Yasmine (Stav Patay), a typical 13-year-old testing all limits. If there’s one thing the overpowering Rashi hates more than anything, it’s disobedience.
As a cop, he’s used to getting his way, so when a group of teens hanging out in a park question his right to look through their bags, he strip-searches them as a means of humiliation. But he’s chosen a bad target — one of the kids’ dads is high up in intelligence, and Internal Affairs is called in to investigate. That doesn’t sit well with Rashi: The world is a dangerous place, so how dare anyone question his methods for ensuring society toes the line? Matters aren’t any better at home, since Yasmine is showing an independent streak, and Rashi thinks Avigail isn’t setting strict enough boundaries.
Whether scripted by Shani or coming directly from Naim, the character’s strategies are impressive. When Avigail pushes back even slightly, he becomes passive-aggressive by refusing food, which turns her into a coddling pussycat. Later when they start fighting, he sits his sizable body down against the front door and won’t budge, turning his substantial physical presence into a weapon. Abrasive, argumentative and truly unlikable, Rashi trades on a protective, outsized masculinity in his personal life, but it’s only a matter of time before it backfires.
What’s this all got to do with the trilogy’s theme of love? Well, Rashi truly cares for Avigail, in his manner, while she’s beginning to explore what love truly means. His tragedy is his inability to understand the selflessness required, to see beyond himself and his conditioning. There’s a picture in his bedroom at his parents’ house of Samson pulling down the temple, and clearly that’s the figure he’s expected to emulate (as a man? … as an Israeli man?). The chains of the title are multiple, from those binding him to a heroic machismo like Samson, himself chained to a structure that will be his downfall, and to the equally destructive ties of a particular kind of love.
At times the browbeating talkfest becomes wearisome, but overall “Chained” has a corrosive power, and indeed the performers truly inhabit their roles. Close-up camerawork enhances Rashi’s intimidating presence, his body filling the screen with a palpable sense of oppressive bulk. As in “Stripped,” genitals in nude scenes are distractingly blurred out, presumably to make the non-professional actors feel more comfortable being filmed naked.