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American audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with the true-life Israeli political story given a semi-fictionalized treatment in Eliran Malka’s dark comedy that marks his feature debut. But that shouldn’t dissuade them from seeing the film, if only as a refreshing reminder that other countries’ politics can be just as surreal and dysfunctional as our own. Depicting the unlikely events surrounding the 1980s formation of a minority, Sephardic political party, The Unorthodox, which recently screened at the Israel Film Center Festival, will prove particularly entertaining for political junkies of all nationalities.
The film begins with a dynamic pre-credits sequence in which the central character, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand, delivering a galvanizing performance), a Jerusalem widower, storms into the seminary from which his daughter has been unceremoniously expelled. The school is run by Ashkenazi Jews (hailing from Europe and Russia) who look down on the Sephardic Jews who have immigrated from Middle Eastern countries. The school’s headmistress justifies her action by citing such religious transgressions as Yaakov owning a television set and his daughter wearing a slit skirt.
Yaakov has absolutely no experience in politics, but he decides to take matters into his own hands and form an upstart party, dubbed Shas, to represent Sephardic interests. “If we had our own party, we’d attack the system from within,” he tells his compatriots. Among his first allies in his ultra-orthodox community are a mohel (someone who performs circumcisions) and a “discount rabbi” who works out of a slaughterhouse.
Onscreen graphics provide a countdown to the upcoming election, as Yaakov’s growing movement, who incongruously model themselves after the Black Panthers, struggle for recognition. Key to their success is securing the endorsement of a prominent rabbi, which leads to a very funny scene in which Yaakov meets with an elderly rabbi whose silent glances and monosyllabic murmurings are miraculously interpreted at great length by a young aide.
Along the way, the film takes time for some enjoyable stylistic digressions, including a fantasy dance sequence and a contrastingly laid-back scene in which Yaakov and a colleague take a break from politics to listen to the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.”
The proceedings become more suspenseful when Shas actually manages to get more votes than its leaders could have imagined and begins a campaign for the Knesset as a result. But the party quickly runs into headwinds in the form of allegations of forged signatures and other electoral abuses that render the film’s tone significantly darker in its final section.
While the complex plot machinations will certainly be best appreciated by Israeli audiences familiar with the real-life events, writer-director Malka renders them so entertainingly that even those with only a cursory knowledge of the country’s politics will be swept along. The fictional Yaakov, whose voiceover narration helps delineate many of the plot points, is such a dynamic central character that viewers will likely relate to his passion even if becoming discomfited by the sometimes inflammatory populist rhetoric. The bouncy pop music score provides a nicely lighthearted sonic background that further fuels the sprightly pacing.
Venue: Israel Film Center Festival
Production: Dori Media
Director-screenwriter: Eliran Malka
Producer: Yonathan Paran
Executive producer: Raanan Gershoni
Director of photography: Yaron Scharf
Editor: Arik Lahav Leibovitch
Composer: Ophir Leibovitch
Costume designer: Hava Levi Rozelsky
Casting: Michael Koren
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