‘God’s Sandbox,” the latest Israeli film to make its way to American shores, depends in large part on the mystery and romance of the desert for its effect. This is evident from its very first moments, when a car, driving slowly along a winding desert road, stops at what appears to be no particular point, and lets out a passenger: a middle-aged woman wearing a sensible straw hat to protect herself from the scorching heat, lugging a bulky suitcase. Liz (Razia Israeli), a sensible-looking author, has arrived in this remote Sinai outpost to locate her wayward daughter Rachel (Orly Perel), who has fled the comforts of home for the pleasures of the desert. Summoning all her powers of persuasion, Liz begs Rachel to return, but the younger woman is adamant that this Bedouin beachfront encampment, which seems to be stocked with an array of other dropouts, is her new home. Mustafa (Sami Samir), who does double duty as the local café’s proprietor and Rachel’s boyfriend, senses the tension cutting through the air, and offers to while away the time by telling the women “a love story from the desert,” and proceeds to narrate a tale of the passionate romance between Nagim (Juliano Merr), a sheik’s son and free spirit Leila (Meital Duan). Desperately attracted to the non-Bedouin roustabout, Nagim begs his father for permission to marry her, but his father refuses and the lovers are cast out, forced to fend for themselves in the unforgiving desert.
“God’s Sandbox” toggles between past and present, between the story and its telling, and in so doing offers an unusual mix of romance and drama, social critique and passionate love story. As Mustafa’s story of the young lovers progresses, Liz’s responses to the tale intensify: she grows downright violent in her desperate desire that he reach the narrative’s conclusion. The story is also about the Israeli generation gap: The battle between Liz and Rachel is left mostly unsketched, but from its vague outlines, it is clear that Rachel has rejected Israeli society in its entirety, embracing another culture in the hopes of cleansing herself of its impurities. Working from a script by Yoav and Hanita Halevy, director Doron Eran piles on a full plate of burning social issues, adding Jewish-Arab relations and female-genital mutilation to the pile.
Yes, female-genital mutilation; as in another recent film, Ousmane Sembène’s “Moolaadé,” “God’s Sandbox” embroils itself in the thorny debate over certain native cultures’ practice of removing young women’s clitorises. Leila, journeying with Nagim to see his uncle in the hopes of finding shelter, witnesses a barbaric scene out of a nightmare: a young woman crying wordlessly and hideously, like a wounded animal. Leila asks another bystander why this woman is crying, and the response she receives is a finger silently pointing between her legs. Simultaneously entranced and horrified, Leila watches as a gathering of female elders washes the prone woman’s body as she jerks and cries, her eyes wide open in terror. An older woman wields her scalpel, its metal point glinting in the faint light, and when knife touches body, the “patient” lets loose a horrific, unearthly scream. An onlooker remarks, “Purification is a precious thing to a man,” and those words end up ringing true for Leila in unexpected ways.
In fact, the Hebrew title of the film translates as “purification,” and in addition to its most obvious resonance there lurks a possible explanation of Rachel’s rebellious hostility. “God’s Sandbox” emphasizes the quasi-mystical properties of desert life, choosing to take place in a never-specified neverland removed from daily socio-political care, but Liz and Rachel are very clearly marked as Israelis. Rachel is a sister to the Israelis who choose to drop out from the pressures of life in the Holy Land, whether permanently or just for a few years. In rejecting her mother’s entreaties, she is also rejecting the call of her homeland to return to its constricting embrace. “God’s Sandbox” craftily lays out the power relationships between characters through the use of different languages: English is the language of shared discourse, but mother and daughter speak Hebrew among themselves, being that Hebrew is the language of exclusionary intimacy. Meanwhile, Rachel and Mustafa occasionally speak Arabic to each other, an expression of their own bond, and of Rachel’s petulant dismissal of her mother’s claims to her.
“God’s Sandbox” ultimately tries to bring together the two stories, but their union is awkward at best. Still, though the variegated topics it tackles make for an odd coupling, there are moments of genuine power here, as well. Claudio Steinberg’s photography is lovely to look at, lending the film’s desert landscapes a grandeur that renders it a down-home version of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.