'Death of a Poetess' ('Mot Hamishoreret'): Film Review

Poignant, hard-hitting indie filmmaking.

Israeli poet Efrat Mishori and filmmaker Dana Goldberg dramatize a fateful meeting and a miscarriage of justice.

A beautiful example of how a memorable film can be made on a shoestring, Death of a Poetess poignantly describes the last day in the life of an educated Israeli writer, culminating in her casual encounter with a gay Palestinian woman in a bar. But it is equally about the Arab woman’s doomed conversation with a police investigator determined to make her confess to a crime she didn't commit. Well-known poet Efrat Mishori and young filmmaker Dana Goldberg (whose first feature Alice won awards a few years ago) co-direct two fine actresses — Evgenia Dodina (One Week and a Day) and newcomer Samira Saraya — to great effect. Their creative partnership produces dialogue as taut as a poem, and a story told in gritty black-and-white visuals with sets and camerawork reduced to a minimum.

Following the film's domestic premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where Saraya won the Haggiag Award for best actress, it is making its international bow at Goteborg. Its true-to-life portraits will strike an immediate chord of recognition with woman viewers, though it should also interest LGBT and Mideast-interest audiences. In any case, the pic's apparent simplicity hides a subtlety that requires attentive viewing.

The narrative unfolds in two converging stories. Lenny Sadeh, an Israeli professional woman played on the razor’s edge of suppressed emotion by Dodina, has reached the age of 50 full of regrets. After carefully getting her hair and nails done, she nervously presents a manuscript called “Death of a Poetess” to a poetry editor, admitting it’s her first attempt to write verse. We are given a clue what it may be about when her voice is heard reciting lines that all end in “my dear daughter.” Other hints suggest her melancholy is related to a daughter she gave up as an infant.

While Lenny is seen going around Tel Aviv and unhappily interacting with shopkeepers and taxi drivers, Yasmin (Samira Saraya) is immobilized on the suspect’s chair in front of an unseen interrogator. It’s early in the morning and she’s been there all night, after getting involved in a tragic incident on the beach. She tried to save a woman from drowning — but failed. As the invisible investigator’s voice turns from false sympathy to cold bullying, she appears more and more like a fish on a line, and the fact that she’s Palestinian appears to seal her fate, no matter what she says in her defense. When the investigator forces Yasmin to admit that she sneaks off from her husband and young daughter in search of alcohol, music and female companionship (“a warm bosom”) on the beach, she realizes she will either have to admit to being gay, or a murderer, to her family. It’s a heart-breaking choice.

Saraya, glued to a chair in medium shot for most of the film, superbly conveys the fright and exhaustion of a suspect being grilled into submission. Nervous and flustered, she faces the repetitive but escalating interrogation alternately resigned and rebellious. In the loathsome role of the unseen police officer, Y. Goldberg is a Kafka-like voice of untouchable power and universal oppression. 

Capping the film is the intense final meeting between the protags at a breezy beach bar, which exposes the women’s desperation along with their humor and humanity. Lenny is rapidly getting her courage up with whiskey, and she reproaches Yasmin for not running home to her little girl. Instead, Yasmin surprises her by reciting some stirring verses of her own, which honestly sound better than Lenny’s self-pitying dirge for her long-lost child. It reminds the viewer that poetry isn’t limited to intellectuals or nationalities. Not to mention the taxi driver (graciously played by author Moshe Choresh) who has translated Israel’s national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik into Arabic.

Production companies: Kinoclan Women With Cameras, Baseworx for Film, Israel Film Fund, Geshere Multicultural Fund
Cast: Evgenia Dodina, Samira Saraya, Y. Goldberg
Directors-screenwriters: Efrat Mishor, Dana Goldberg
Producer: Dana Goldberg
Co-producer: Claudia Landsberger
Executive producer: Yael Pinsker
Directors of photography: Asi Oren
Production designer: Carmela Sanderson
Costume designer: Yaron Arye
Editor: Katia Shepeliavaya
Music: Henree and Nikka, Moshe and Sandra Choresh

77 minutes