'A Quiet Heart' ('Lev shaket meod'): Film Review | Tallinn 2016

A Quiet Heart - still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Green Productions
Hate thy neighbor.

'Games of Thrones' regular Ania Bukstein stars in Eitan Anner’s Jerusalem-set drama, the big prize-winner at Estonia’s Black Nights Film Festival.

Set on the fault line between religious conservatives and secular liberals in contemporary Israel, A Quiet Heart has more emotional bite and dramatic punch that its somber subject matter may suggest. Already a domestic award-winner, writer-director Eitan Anner’s fourth feature won the top prizes for best film and best actress at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last week. Strong performances and timely themes should ensure further festival outings, with niche theatrical interest possible.

Recent Games of Thrones addition Ania Bukstein stars as Naomi Sirad, a young concert pianist suffering from a crisis of confidence. Escaping her native Tel Aviv to start a new life in Jerusalem, she rents a threadbare apartment in a high-rise housing project in Kiryat Yovel, a hillside suburb dominated by hard-line Orthodox Jews. Initially viewed with suspicion by her strictly religious neighbors, Naomi is alarmed to discover Simcha (Lior Lifshitz), a mute preteen boy from an Orthodox family in the next building, has a habit of climbing in through her fifth-floor window to play a battered piano left behind by the previous tenant.

Jerusalem does not give Naomi a warm welcome. In between working at her drudge job, she faces constant passive-aggressive scrutiny from her neighbors, while a hostile traffic warden (Uri Gottlieb) papers her car daily with costly parking tickets. Her only escape is trying to rediscover her love of music, which starts to return after she hears the pipe organ played at a nearby Catholic monastery by a handsome Italian monk, Brother Fabrizio (Hannibal alum Giorgio Lupano).

Conducted in stilted English, Naomi’s hesitant friendship with Fabrizio is mildly flirtatious but never sexual. Even so, faceless neighborhood gossips seize the chance to brand this unmarried young outsider a “whore” and a “missionary,” demanding that she leave the area with anonymous threats and increasingly stark warnings. Fearing reprisals, Simcha’s mother cancels the boy’s informal piano lessons with Naomi. Ominous evidence surfaces that seems to suggest the previous tenant in her apartment was driven to suicide by similar harassment tactics, or even murdered outright.

A Quiet Heart is a tense, slow-burn drama about the evils of intolerance that builds into a gripping suspense thriller. Mostly working inside drab interiors with a shaky handheld camera, Anner succeeds in conveying a repressive, claustrophobic air of creeping unease and latent violence. With her striking, angular beauty and piercing blues eyes, Bukstein has a magnetic screen presence that lends intensity to even the slacker scenes.

That said, Anner is hardly a subtle storyteller. Naomi’s scenes with Fabrizio feel hammy and stiff, possibly because of their clunky second-language English dialogue. A string of sketchy minor characters, including Naomi’s father and ex-boyfriend, bring little to the narrative. The kick-ass activist Maya (Rona Lee Shimon), who opposes religious ghettos, is an intriguing but underused presence. Indeed, some deeper context about the antagonism between Orthodox and secular Israelis would have helped widen the film’s appeal among non-Jewish audiences.

Anner's broadly upbeat resolution also feels way too glib, appearing to pin the blame for deeply ingrained cultural and political tensions on a single wrong-headed bully. But despite these minor annoyances, A Quiet Heart still stands out as a crafted, thoughtful and quietly gripping snapshot of internal social conflicts rarely examined in Israeli cinema. For fans of brutalist architecture, the looming towers of Kiryat Yovel also play a powerful background role, hulking and brooding like shadow characters in the psychodrama.

Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Green Productions
Cast: Ania Bukstein, Uri Gottlieb, Giorgio Lupano, Rona Lee Shimon, Lior Lifshitz, Irit Kaplan
Director, screenwriter: Eitan Anner
Producer: Gal Greenspan
Cinematographer: Moshe Mishali
Editor: Yael Hersonski
Music: Jonathan Bar-Giora
Sales company: Green Productions, Israel
Not rated, 92 minutes