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Attempting to be both a spy thriller and psychological drama about the emotionally complex relationship between two women from very different worlds, Eran Riklis‘ Shelter fails to convince on either front. Lacking suspense and at times bordering on unintentional silliness in its characterizations, the film is a misfire that sorely disappoints as it comes from the director of such acclaimed efforts as The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree.
The story is largely set within the confines of a spacious apartment in Hamburg, Germany. It’s an Israeli safe house where the Israeli Mossad is protecting Mona (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani), a Lebanese informant who has betrayed the Hezbollah for very personal reasons. Her former lover (Doraid Liddawi), a top Hezbollah operative, has left her and taken their 8-year-old son with him. Recovering from extensive plastic surgery, the heavily bandaged Mona will be staying at the apartment for two weeks before she’s to be relocated to Canada.
Her handler and bodyguard, Naomi (Neta Riskin), is a former Mossad agent who has been called back into service by her former superior (leading Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, recently seen in Foxtrot). Having left the agency after the killing of her husband, a fellow agent, Naomi is still nursing emotional wounds and isn’t particularly eager to take on the assignment. But she dutifully goes along, even if she suspects the mission may be more dangerous than she’s being told.
Much of the drama concerns the interactions between the two women which start out strained — not surprising, considering that Mona had been indoctrinated to never trust Jews — but eventually become warmer as they bond over such issues as Mona longing to be reunited with her little boy and Naomi desperately attempting to become pregnant (she’s repeatedly seen injecting herself to further the process).
But even as their situation becomes more fraught with tension as a result of suspicious characters lurking about the neighborhood, they find time to indulge in such frivolities as Mona getting Naomi to loosen up a little by the both of them donning blonde wigs and lavish makeup, as if they were going out for a night on the town. None of the emotional dynamics ring remotely true, including a brief hint at mutual sexual attraction, despite the actresses’ best efforts to make their characters relatable. The film at times veers perilously close to camp; one can almost imagine the leading roles being played by a young Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
None of this would matter quite as much if the director-screenwriter had managed to infuse some genuine suspense into the glacially paced proceedings that, considering the claustrophobic setting, have an almost theatrical feel. Unfortunately, the few attempts in that regard fall flat, including the would-be shocking ending that mostly smacks of contrivance.
Production companies: Eran Riklis Productions, Heimatfilm, MACT Productions, Riva Filmproduktion
Distributor: Menemsha Films
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Meta Riskin, Lior Asheknazi, Doraid Leddawi
Director-screenwriter: Eran Riklis
Producers: Bettina Brokemper, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Michael Eckelt, Eran Riklis
Production designer: Bertram Staub
Editor: Richard Marizy
Casting: Esther Kling, Susanne Ritter