Quelle surprise. The Cannes 2020 label anoints two Israeli films from male directors, both about father-son relationships and grieving. The superior by a country mile is the seamlessly accomplished “Here We Are” from veteran helmer-writer Nir Bergman. And then there is the grandiosely titled “The Death of Cinema and My Father Too,” an ambitious, low-budget exercise from feature debutant Dani Rosenberg that offers a sometimes artful but more often self-indulgent mashup of fiction, reality and home movies. Although definitely not for all tastes, the Cannes designation may nudge this item into further fests and niche sales.
As we learn from watching, “The Death of Cinema” is the result of a complicated evolution. Earlier, Rosenberg, a Sam Spiegel Film School graduate, received a grant from the Israel Film Fund to make “The Night Escape,” a comic drama that would exploit both national and personal paranoias. He planned to cast his businessman father Natan in the lead. But, ultimately, Natan’s cancer diagnosis and treatment make this impossible.
After his father’s death, Rosenberg creates a self-reflexive version of the situation, casting burly veteran producer Marek Rozenbaum (strong) as his ailing father (called Yoel Edelstein) and journalist Roni Kuban as his own alter-ego, Assaf. As the two men play out a scene from “The Night Escape,” which also involves Assaf’s estranged wife Zohar (played by Rosenberg’s spunky, real-life spouse, professional actress Noa Koler), one can appreciate the potential of its blackly comic premise.
But “The Night Escape” is no longer the film that Rosenberg wants to make. He’s more interested in using the players, including his mother Ina Rosenberg (as Assaf’s mother, Nina Edelstein) to explore his feelings about his father’s departure, his film and even his marriage and impending fatherhood. To further that aim, he adds another layer, incorporating documentary footage of the unwell Natan, old home movies, amateur shorts and a searing monologue from his pregnant wife. Eventually, it becomes an overlong and rather heavy brew, which many viewers will find tedious rather than touching.
From what one can gather from the home movie footage, helmer Rosenberg was one of those kids who always trained his camera on family members. As he grew older, his parents proved good sports, gamely taking roles in silly fictional shorts. But his use of a camera, sometimes just a telephone one, to shoot documentary footage after his father becomes ill feels increasingly insensitive, especially when the grimacing-in-pain Natan instructs him to turn it off and he doesn’t. Combine that with Rosenberg’s insistence on gabbing about his feature project at inopportune moments to the bedridden Natan, and one starts to wonder if he is more upset about losing his planned film or his father.
Still, some scenes manage to create the ineffability of loss in poignant images. In one instance, Assaf is sitting at a Tel Aviv bar with some of his old film school buddies, and he sees Yoel in the misty distance, riding his bike. He runs after him, trying to stop him or make him take notice, but to no avail.
No matter how one ultimately feels about “Death,” it’s hard not to have a sneaky admiration for Rosenberg’s resilience as a filmmaker. When given lemons, he continues to try to make lemonade. Even though his ultimate concoction leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, it also provides a platform from which to consider what constitutes a cinematic memorial. And to think about cinema’s capacity to turn back time, but inability to stop it.