'The Cousin' ('Ha Ben Dod'): Film Review | Venice 2017
An open-minded Israeli begins to question his liberal convictions when a Palestinian laborer he hired is suspected of a crime and tensions escalate in Tzahi Grad's dark comedy.
It's often said in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jews and Arabs are both descended from Abraham, giving them shared genetic roots. That belief supplies the title of The Cousin, Israeli actor-writer-director Tzahi Grad's message-driven seriocomedy about good intentions that get severely tested when a crime is committed and fingers point automatically to a Palestinian laborer. The humor milked from that explosive scenario is hit-or-miss and the modest production fairly televisual in style, but the quirky treatment of a sensitive issue should ensure continuing festival play after Venice.
Grad stars as Naftali, a local media presence in an Israeli village, whose belief in more open dialogue between Jews and Arabs is the foundation of a reality TV project he's pitching. Needing renovations done on a crumbling studio on the grounds of his family home, he arranges to hire a Palestinian Muslim recommended by his gardener. The worker who climbs aboard his car at the designated pickup point is not the man with whom Naftali spoke, but claims to be his equally skilled brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka). While he's mildly suspicious about the switch, Naftali takes him back to begin the job anyway.
They stop at a construction supply yard to pick up materials, and Fahed supposedly returns there later that morning for tools they forgot. At some point during this time, a teenage girl is assaulted at the site, and while no one even seems to know the details of the offense, everyone is quick to assume the Arab stranger in their midst was responsible. That includes the cops; they waste no time arresting Fahed, who sidelines as a rapper with a possible anti-Israel strain in his music. Convinced the young man is innocent, Naftali pays his bail and returns home with him, making his prickly wife Yael (Osnat Fishman) increasingly nervous.
The spiraling hysteria of fear, panic and hostility, both in the community and within Naftali's own family, contains comic elements, though the potential gravity of the predicament for Fahed is never in doubt. That comes across strongly in the almost feral terror that registers in Dakka's eyes as a motley vigilante group closes in, pursuing him once he bolts. The actor gives the film's most compelling performance, keeping us guessing about Fahed's innocence almost right up to the end, when Naftali puts himself in danger, stepping in to defuse a volatile situation.
Grad's script succeeds at placing us in Naftali's shoes, prompting the audience to question where justified suspicion ends and subcutaneous prejudice begins. If the fart humor of the early scenes seems a strange way of introducing the self-styled lead character in a film about intolerance, that gross touch suggests an appealing everyman humility on the writer-director's part, which helps keep Naftali's blundering heroics relatable. Grad casts his own kids as Naftali's children, adding to the personal feel of a movie that's somewhat inelegant in its chaotic developments but sincere in its urging to break the cycle of kneejerk distrust, incomprehension and gut-level fear.
Production companies: Bleiberg Entertainment, MH1
Cast: Tzahi Grad, Ala Dakka, Osnat Fishman, Uri Hochman, Yaron Motola, Eli Ben David, Ben Grad Cohen, Alma Grad Cohen
Director-screenwriter: Tzahi Grad
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Tzahi Grad
Executive producers: Charles Wachsberg, Nicholas Donnermeyer
Director of photography: Eitan Hatuka
Production designer: Miguel Merkin
Costume designers: Dani Bar Shai, Naim Kassem
Music: Sapir Matityahu
Editors: Sari Bisharat, Danny Rafic
Casting: Galit Eskhol
Sales: Bleiberg Entertainment
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)