Valley of Strength: Film Review

This Israeli drama about the first wave of Jewish emigrants to 19th century Palestine lacks narrative tension.

Israeli drama tells the story of Russian emigrants to 1880s Palestine.

Considering the exoticism of its setting, Gei Oni (Valley of Strength), an Israeli historical drama set in 1880s Palestine, doesn’t live up to its full potential. Dan Wolman’s film about a young female survivor of Russian pogroms who forges a new life in the Ottoman-ruled land is a deeply humanistic drama that sheds light on the plight of the first wave of Jewish migrants to the area. But its choppy, lackluster execution robs the piece of much of its innate drama.

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The story begins with 17-year-old Fania (Tamar Alkan) arriving in Palestine with her infant daughter, her aged uncle, and her emotionally traumatized brother. Unable to provide for herself and her helpless charges, she has little choice but to accept a marriage proposal from Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi), a young widower with two children of his own. The two are virtual strangers, and Fania’s refusal to consummate the marriage despite her husband’s obvious interest doesn’t exactly bring them closer together. Her reticence has to do with a dark secret from her past which is not revealed until the melodramatic final act.

Director/screenwriter Dan Wolman presents an evocative portrait of the difficulties facing these Jewish pioneers to the region, including the hostility from their Arab neighbors and the backbreaking work needed to farm the barren landscape.

But he’s less successful in negotiating the dramatic aspects of his tale, with its plodding plotline and lengthy, talky scenes often devoid of tension. That the film was edited down from a television mini-series is often evident via the sketchy narrative, which ultimately has Fania emerging as a strong-willed and highly capable businesswoman.  

Still, the novelty of the setting provides some rewards, as do the sensitive turns by the movingly restrained Ashkenazi and the luminous Alka, who won an Israeli Film Critic Association award for her performance.

Opened July 13
Production: Dan Wolman Productions.
Cast: Tamar Alkan, Zion Ashkenazi, Ya'ackow Bodo, Levana Finkelstein, Ezra Dagan.
Director/screenwriter: Dan Wolman.
Director of photography: Ran Aviad.
Editor; Shoshi Wolman.
Music: Ori Vidslavski.
Not rated, 102 min.