'Laila in Haifa': Film Review | Venice 2020

Amos Gitai’s 'Laila in Haifa'
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Amos Gitai’s 'Laila in Haifa'

There are comprehension issues in more ways than one.

A trendy night spot in Haifa becomes a symbolic meeting and dialoguing place for Palestinians and Israelis in Amos Gitai’s single-set drama.

Haifa, a port city in Israeli, is famous for its mixture of Arabs and Israelis, making it an ideal location for inter-cultural dramas. Well-known Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, who hails from the city, aims to make the most of it in Laila in Haifa, where he brings a hip bunch of contemporary Israelis and Palestinians together in mixed couples. But the comprehension issues are not just on the screen. Without a grasp of Hebrew or Arabic, audiences are going to have their hands full identifying the two groups, which only makes the thin storyline additionally confusing.

Chasing down clues to the characters’ cultural identities may not be the point of the film, but it does supply some welcome relief from trying to make sense of the dialogue, which tends to be written as a sequence of passionately delivered non-sequiturs. It may all boil down to a matter of subtitles, but one suspects this is a film of local interest only. It looked out of place in Venice competition.

It’s Friday night and the setting is a cosmopolitan, two-level night spot (shot in Haifa’s Fattoush Bar & Gallery) right next to a noisy metro line, where passing trains periodically drown out the music and conversation. The club includes an art gallery and even a gay bar with a floor show.  Interestingly, it attracts a mixture of Arabs and Jews, who willingly socialize and sometimes bicker.

In the fictional story co-penned by Gitai and Marie-Jose Sanselme, the owner of the art gallery is Laila (Maria Zreik, Villa Touma), an ambitious young Arab woman married to Kamal (Makram J. Khoury, Wedding in Galilee), a wealthy Palestinian gent much older than she is. He appears to be involved in politics; certainly he’s strongly opposed to her choice to showcase pictures about the Palestinian Resistance, shot by dashing Israeli photographer Gil (actor and singer Tsahi Halevi). “When politics falls into the hands of amateurs, it’s dangerous,” he ominously intones.

Though he misses the intimate moment shared by Laila and Gil on the latter’s arrival at the gallery, as the evening wears on he can’t help but notice she’s ready to switch allegiance to the younger man. Meanwhile Kamal is harassed by a smoldering young Arab woman (played by interesting newcomer Behira Ablassi), who demands money for Palestinian fighters and their families.

Another person who feels the vibes between Gil and Laila is Gil’s half-sister Naama (Israeli actress and dancer Naama Preis). After hissing at Laila, she immediately launches into an account of how her husband doesn’t want to have sex with her — this is confided to Gil, who wisely says nothing. Later we find her at the bar flirting with a charming young Arab who has had a little too much to drink. If the scene is meant to be funny-ironic, it falls pretty flat.

One functioning comic moment is a skit about an Internet date between a mature and wildly over-dressed woman (comedian Hana Laslo, Free Zone) and a burly young Arab rapper, who laughingly tells her he was expecting someone younger, to which she replies she was expecting someone more Jewish.

The final couple is Gil’s buddy Hisham and his fragile wife Khawla (Khawla Ibraheem, a Syrian Palestinian actress and playwright). She is yet another woman dissatisfied with her marriage and she throws herself at Gil, who wisely walks away.

The single location and emphasis on dialogue gives the film the feeling of filmed theater. Pacing can be slow and it is only at the end that an exciting use of music helps the film reach an artificial climax of sorts.

Production companies: Agav Films, CDP in association with United King Film, In-Between Productions, Dundee Productions, Laser Film
Cast: Maria Zreik, Khawla Ibraheem, Naama Preis, Tsahi Halevi, Bahira Ablassi, Makram J. Khoury, Tom Baum, Hana Laslo, Hisham Suleiman, Clara Khoury, Andrzej Seweryn
Director: Amos Gitai
Screenwriters: Amos Gitai, Marie-Jose Sanselme
Producers: Catherine Dussart, Laurent Truchot, Amos Gitai
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Editor: Yuval Orr
Production designer: Arie Weiss
Costume designer: Shani Bar-ness
Music: Alexey Kochetkov
Casting: Ilan Moskovitch
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Hanway Films
97 minutes