Club Fattoush is a real-life bar and arts space in the Israeli port city of Haifa: a kind of bohemian, liberal-minded gathering point for a broad array of residents, be they Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Arabic, gay or straight, and so on. Veteran Haifa-born filmmaker Amos Gitai is sufficiently enamored of the venue to have made a feature-length fictional celebration of its diversity and cultural import. Enter “Laila in Haifa,” a spaghetti pile of connected and disconnected narrative strands, revolving around a series of Fattoush employees and patrons over a single evening of business. It’s enough to convince you to drop into the place should you ever find yourself in town: It’d almost certainly offer a better time than “Laila in Haifa,” which, for all its good intentions and social interests, is among Gitai’s most listless films, not even propped up by his usual formal rigor.
Like Gitai’s last film, the self-explanatory, sketch-based ensemble piece “A Tramway in Jerusalem,” “Laila in Haifa” aims to serve up a microcosm of a vastly splintered society in a contained public space: here a bar, there a single tram carriage. But where that film offered some breezy observational comedy and more defined star turns (including an entertainingly cast Mathieu Amalric), Gitai’s latest is a murky, largely po-faced affair, in which no character’s story urgently distinguishes itself from, or even within, a general morass of discontent. (The film’s festival marketing tagline — “Five women, five stories, one night” — implies a rather more parsable structure.) Despite a spot in this year’s Venice competition, international distributors will be slow to show interest.
The film’s opening minutes provide flickers of narrative and technical verve that Gitai soon enough shrugs off. In a rain-sodden outdoor parking lot, a man is thrown out of a car, beaten by thugs, and left to his wounds, before staff at the adjacent Fattoush come to his aid. Gitai and oft-bravura cinematographer Eric Gautier shoot the attack in a tense, whirling single take that continues as he staggers into the hubbub of the bar — long enough to make one wonder if the whole film is to be a one-shot stunt — before cutting at an unceremonious point, and assuming conventional shooting and editing rhythms thereafter.
The victim turns out to be Gil (Tsahi Halevi), a talented Israeli photographer whose politically provocative depictions of conflict and destruction have evidently not made him universally popular. As it turns out, he’s at Fattoush to launch an exhibition the bar is hosting of his work, overseen by Palestinian gallery publicist Laila (Maria Zreik), with whom he’s romantically entangled. Her older husband Kamal (Makram J. Khoury) is skeptical of his work, attempting to discourage talk of the exhibition traveling to the United States; a visiting American collector, meanwhile, flatly dismisses the photographs as “weird.” “It’s political art,” Laila offers in limp defence. “We believe it’s important to raise awareness of the issue through art.” Gil sees things differently: “I never wanted to be an artist, I just document other people’s lives.” The discourse here is not scintillating.
The faintly defined love triangle between Laila, Gil and Kamal is the closest thing Gitai and Marie Jose Sanselme’s stuffy script has to a center, though it drifts frequently from them to eavesdrop on sketchier conversations and crises. Gil’s sister Naama (Naama Preis) seeks a fling to distract her from her husband’s indifference. Young bar worker Khawla (Khawla Ibraheem) is also drawn to Gil, while fending off talk from her pushy husband Hisham (Hisham Suliman) of starting a family. Middle-aged Hannah (Hana Laslo, the Cannes-laureled star of Gitai’s “Free Zone”) turns up at the bar on a blind date, only to be taken off-guard by who she meets, while a young gay couple dithers between staying and going, still not comfortable with being seen together.
None of these story fragments intersect so much as they absently brush past each other on their way to order drinks, while their collective sociopolitical resonance is minimal. Gitai and Sanselme have a tendency to drop gnomic observations into the dialogue (“The time of the great epochs is over,” someone states grandly) and leaving them dangling. The actors’ delivery seems deliberately affectless, to debatable effect, while even the ambience of the bar itself is inconsistently evoked: Music comes and goes haphazardly, while Gautier’s lighting switches between an oxidized night-owl glow and flatter schemes. One can see the allure of Club Fattoush, but it’s hard not to feel that a documentary, bustling with real rather than dully allegorized humanity, would have better served Gitai’s fascination.