'Tsili': Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
A plaintive drama so intent on shunning literal interpretation that it sacrifices involvement

Amos Gitai explores the symbolic narrative of young women who survived the European Diaspora of World War II in this loose adaptation of Aharon Appelfeld's novel

VENICE – The stirring images that usher in the end credits of Tsili, scratchy black-and-white archival footage of Holocaust children smiling for the camera, convey the indescribable sorrow embedded in this bleak drama. But Amos Gitai's conceptual account of the violation of innocence and liberty, freely inspired by Aharon Appelfeld's novel, is so weighted down by its formal austerity and poetic mannerisms that the long, meandering path to its forceful concluding notes remains, for much of the duration, an impassive journey.

A willfully obscure work, even by the Israeli director's standards, Tsili starts with an eyeball-roller of an opening sequence in which the title character, clad in white, does a tortured dance against a black screen. That image is clearly intended to establish the physical and emotional pain at the heart of this female-centric odyssey, but it plays like nothing so much as a tired modern-dance cliche — a little Martha Graham, a dash of Twyla Tharp, a big old dollop of Pina Bausch.

Audience engagement only marginally improves with the scene that follows, in which Tsili (Sara Adler) drifts into sleep on the wintry forest floor in an area helpfully identified in press notes as the Ukrainian province of Chernivtsi. The character is 12 in Appelfeld's book but here appears caught at some indeterminate point between girlhood and maturity. While birdsongs and the wind through the trees compete with the distant sound of gunfire and explosions, Tsili is subsequently seen in extended static shots clearing a shelter in the bracken. Licking the blood from her scratches for nourishment, this frightened bird builds a human nest for protection.

It's almost 20 minutes into the elemental film before any dialogue is heard, when another Jewish refugee, Marek (Adam Tsekhman), approaches Tsili's hiding place and addresses her in Yiddish. Deprived of communication skills by trauma and isolation, she maintains a cautious distance, responding to his attempts at conversation either with monosyllables or silence. But his desperation for human contact holds them together. And despite the young girl's resistance when Marek forces himself on her sexually, a somewhat tender cohabitation is established until he goes off in search of food one day and doesn't return.

Gitai, who co-wrote the screenplay with Marie-Jose Sanselme, signals his intention to make Tsili a symbol as well as a witness for all the young women cast adrift by the Holocaust by having two different actresses play her. While Adler's Tsili is almost feral in looks and behavior, with her panicked eyes and tangle of hair, Meshi Olinski is a more composed, womanly embodiment of her. She's perhaps a visitor from a parallel reality in which she was spared the horrific experience that brought Tsili to this place. Scenes in which the two actresses appear together have a haunting pull, even if they are somewhat confusing.

A slow crescendo of violin music (played by Alexey Kochetkov) starts out mournful but becomes steadily more spirited, suggesting pain, outrage and anger. This emergence from near-silence announces a tonal shift in the concluding, immediate postwar section, when Tsili joins a group of refugees bound for Palestine. Presumably following their arrival, she wanders among the sick and wounded as an unseen third actress (Lea Koenig) recounts the dehumanizing events that led to Tsili's forest exile in dreamlike voiceover.

Only here does Gitai begin to tap the undeniable power in this portrait of one of the most defenseless representatives of a stunned, uprooted people whose lives have been stripped of all meaning beyond their suffering. But even in a film that runs a brief 85 minutes, the distancing preamble is far too recondite and dull to allow the drama its full impact.

Production companies: Agav Films, Archipel 35, Hamon Hafakot, Trikita Entertainment, Citrullo International

Cast: Sara Adler, Meshi Olinski, Lea Koenig, Adam Tsekhman, Andrey Kashkar, Yelena Yaralova

Director: Amos Gitai

Screenwriters: Amos Gitai, Marie-Jose Sanselme, based on the novel by Aharon Appelfeld

Producers: Michael Tapuach, Laurent Truchot, Yury Krestinskiy, Pavel Douvidzon, Denis Freyd, Amos Gitai

Director of photography: Giora Bejach

Production designer: Andrei Chernikov

Costume designer: Dani Bar Shai

Music: Alexey Kochetkov, Amit Poznansky

Editors: Yuval Orr, Isabelle Ingold

Sales: Agav Films, Citrullo International

No rating, 85 minutes