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The Most Psychedelic Jewish Movie Ever Made Is Back

‘How does it feel to be completely free at last?” asks Mike, a bearded American hippie, as he and his three newfound Israeli friends sit grooving around a campfire. “Man, I feel really turned on!”

A veteran of the Vietnam War, Mike has come to Israel by way of Rome, seeking to leave the horrors of combat behind and find a place where he and other flower children can “live as we see fit — without clothes, without governments, and without borders.” Tonight, Mike and his free-thinking compatriots believe they’ve found their utopia on a small, rocky island off the coast of Eilat; but tomorrow, reality will totally harsh their mellow.

The scene is from “An American Hippie In Israel,” the lone filmic effort by the late Israeli writer, director and producer Amos Sefer. The film briefly screened in Israeli theaters upon its release in 1972, but quickly vanished into obscurity after failing to find a distributor. Rediscovered in 2007 by Israeli film buff Yaniv Edelstein, “American Hippie” has since played to packed theaters at “midnight movie” screenings in Tel Aviv, and the film has recently received a deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD re-release in the United States, courtesy of cult film specialists Grindhouse Releasing.

While the Grindhouse DVD trumpets it as “the most psychedelic movie ever made,” American Hippie’s psychedelia quotient pales in comparison to, say, Disney’s “Fantasia” — but it’s not without its period charms, either. Imagine Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” crossed with one of Roger Corman’s late-60s bike-sploitation films (though minus the bikers), and you’ll have a fair idea of the oddball cinematic experience on offer. There’s plenty of gratuitous hippie-chick nudity throughout the film, as well as some groovy dance sequences, a lovely performance by Israeli folk duo Susan and Fran, and plenty of humorously stilted “right-on” dialogue.

It’s from the latter aspect — along with Sefer’s penchant for ham-fisted allegory and head-scratchingly surreal visuals (like a pair of older men who look like mimes with submachine guns, and a pair of sharks who stand still in the water more often than they swim) — that the film derives its “so bad it’s good” reputation. But there’s also a beguiling earnestness to “American Hippie” that sets it apart from the standard Hollywood exploitation fare of the day, even while Sefer’s limitations as a screenwriter and director ultimately keep the film from succeeding as a work of art. For all the revolutionary speechifying done by Mike (played by Israeli actor Asher Tzarfati), it’s never entirely clear what message Sefer is trying to get across. Is American Hippie a raging condemnation of “the Man,” a stark meditation on the futility of the hippie dream, or a pessimistic acknowledgement that the human race will be forever undermined by its basest instincts? Could it possibly be all three?

Tzarfati’s overwrought yet charismatic lead performance is the film’s fiery focal point, but it’s nicely balanced by Shmuel Wolf’s supporting role as Komo, a character who knows little English beyond “Freedom!” and “Wonderful feeling!” but whose expressive face speaks volumes without a word. The scene in which the two men attempt to communicate with each other in a moment of crisis — yet are thwarted and ultimately pulled apart by the inability to speak each other’s language — is genuinely heartbreaking. It’s also one of the few times in the film where Sefer’s message isn’t diluted or hindered by campy dialogue or awkward directorial choices. Among the Grindhouse Blu-Ray/DVD package’s many bonus features are recent interviews with Tzarfati and Wolf, both of whom provide some interesting insight into the making of the film.

The DVD package comes with a bonus disc containing a rare uncut 35 mm print of the original Israeli version the film, which was discovered in the Israel Film Archive in 2010. While the image and sound quality is fairly rough compared to that of the digitally restored U.S. theatrical version on the Blu-Ray disc, and the print has Hebrew and French subtitles burned into it, it’s somehow more engaging than the cleaned-up version; the grittiness better hides the film’s many flaws, and gives the viewer an idea of what it would have been like to watch the film on an Israeli movie theater screen in 1972. (The uncut version also contains six scenes that were considered too controversial to be shown in theaters at the time, due to their political or sexual content.)

“An American Hippie In Israel” certainly won’t be the best film you’ve ever seen, and it probably won’t be the worst; still, it’s an unquestionably unique and at times quite enjoyable artifact. “Laugh with it or at it,” urges horror and fantasy author John Skipp in his liner notes for the DVD package, and “American Hippie” certainly provides ample opportunity to do both.

Dan Epstein’s latest book is “Stars and Strikes,” published by St. Martin’s Press.

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