Two years after he won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival with his existential and diasporic parable “Synonyms,” Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid traded the marshes of Prussia for the beaches of Southern France, where his latest film, “Ahed’s Knee” picked up the Prix de la Jury at the 74th Cannes Film Festival.
Lapid, who shared the award with Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria,” became the first Israeli filmmaker to compete at Cannes since 2011, when Joseph Cedar took home the screenwriting prize for his scathing academic satire, “Footnote.”
The political provocations of “Synonyms” were well submerged behind layers of symbolism and absurdity. “Ahed’s Knee” is more like the sledgehammer that we see, in the film’s most jarring cut, ready to shatter the kneecap of an actress auditioning for a film about the real-life Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi. In 2017, when Tammi was 16 years old, she received an eight-month prison term for slapping an Israeli soldier in the West Bank.
One Israeli lawmaker found the sentence far too lenient. “In my opinion, she should have gotten a bullet, at least in the kneecap,” Deputy Knesset Speaker Bezalel Smotrich (from Habayit Hayehudi) wrote on Twitter. “That would have put her under house arrest for the rest of her life.” Twitter temporarily suspended Smotrich’s account.
“Ahed’s Knee” (the Hebrew title is simply Ha’Berech, which more simply indicates the joint and loses the tongue-in-cheek reference to Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”) follows a filmmaker named Y — Avshalom Pollak in a finely-shaded performance that blends arrogance, anger and deep hurt — who is preparing a film about Tamimi when his filmmaking career takes a strange detour into the Arabah desert, where he has been invited to present one of his films in a community library. When he arrives, a young and ambitious representative from the Ministry of Culture name Yahalom (Nur Fibak) asks him to fill out a form specifying a topic for his remarks from a list of approved themes, all of which are wholesome and unlikely to cause offense. Y balks at what he perceives as the government’s attempt to keep artists in line and bristles at what for him amounts, however indirectly, to censorship.
The bulk of the film is Y’s rant against Israeli culture, or the lack thereof. As Y roams the desert, the scorched and wilted peppers heaped by the side of the highway like roadkill become emblems of societal rot. He bullies his well-meaning yet naïve chaperone and regales her with lurid tales from his military service. As he mounts an increasingly destructive and suicidal campaign against a bureaucratic formality that he considers fascist, our sympathy for Y begins to collapse.
Even if the shrill crescendo of the film’s final act is too lurid to convince, the bulk of “Ahed’s Knee” is an absorbing and often inventive variation on the meta-cinematic tradition of films like “8 ½” and “Stardust Memories,” but with a far greater sense of political purpose and urgency than one finds with Fellini or Woody Allen.
From Israel, an anguished cry of rage, pain and love
“Maybe this film is ‘Synonyms’ twenty years later,” Lapid suggested when I spoke to him in Cannes. “The energetic, dynamic, furious courageous, charming sexy young guy became desperate and kind of hopeless. For me, he looks very tired all the time.”
I had been looking forward to a tête-à-tête with the director, but our interview needed to take place over Zoom after Lapid’s girlfriend had tested positive for COVID.
I asked Lapid about Y’s strange mix of bluster and curiosity. He’s a character who asks a lot of questions, but doesn’t necessarily care about people’s answers. “He doesn’t want to connect with anyone, and on the other hand he connects with everyone,” the director said. One of the people Y seeks connection with is his recently deceased mother; throughout the film, he records messages for her with his phone. It’s a melancholic and haunting touch that is an appropriate counterpoint to the film’s more incendiary moments.
As in “Synonyms” and Lapid’s previous film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” about a 5-year-old poet, “Ahed’s Knee” introduces us to a verbally unpredictable and explosively eloquent protagonist. “He feels inside that all the words in the dictionary are not enough in order to really make other people grasp what it is he feels,” Lapid told me.
If “Synonyms” was an intricate and profoundly pessimistic study of contemporary Israeli and Jewish life in the diaspora, “Ahed’s Knee” is a furious cri de coeur about Israeli society.
“I wouldn’t say that the film really deals with freedom of expression and I wouldn’t say that the main problem in Israel is the liberty of expression or the liberty of cinema,” Lapid said. “I would say that already the movie takes this anecdote as a way of trying to shed light on the actual state of the Israeli Collective Soul, of the Israeli situation. If there is a problem in Israel, it is to which extent you don’t have to suppress anyone, because people suppress themselves masterfully.”
From Israel, an anguished cry of rage, pain and love
Y seems very much to be the director’s alter ego, not simply because Lapid gives fleshes him out with autobiographical details, including the recent death of his mother. (Y tells Yahalom that he grew up sketching the Odessa steps from “Potemkin” and the knights from “Alexander Nevsky,” one of the young Lapid’s pastimes). In spring 2018, an official from the Ministry of Culture asked Lapid to send back a signed form specifying the topic of a post-screening talk. With its lurid climax, “Ahed’s Knee” plays out like a twisted fantasy version of the incident, in which Lapid decided to wreak havoc on the desert village that invited him to speak.
“I don’t know if the movie has an opinion or has a message, but if so, I think the movie deals with this dichotomy, or with this clash between being good and being right,” Lapid said. “What does it mean to be good in a bad place? And what does being right matter when it detaches you from your most human instincts?”
One of the film’s central concerns seems to be: What do principles count for, if, like Y’s, they only lead to suspicion and alienation. “What happens when being right puts you in the position of resisting? You end up resisting everything. In the end you resist a tree, you resist the sidewalk, you resist the guy in the pizza place. You resist. Everyone is an enemy. The sand is an enemy. The heel is an enemy. The driver is an enemy. I mean you’re surrounded by monsters and you became a monster yourself.”
In the end, “Ahed’s Knee” forces Y to choose between his integrity on the one hand and his humanity on the other. “By connecting with the human inside him,” Lapid said, “he is also giving up the capacity to overcome the weaknesses and the limits; it’s giving up the capacity to change something in the political course [as well as] the capacity or the possibility to fight against his mother’s death.”
“Synonyms” was a bleakly absurd take on the seductiveness and impossibility of assimilating into secular European culture. “Ahed’s Knee” suggests that remaining in or returning to Israel is a differently horrific option. “I think that sick societies put you in front of bad choices. The normal option doesn’t exist,” Lapid said.
There will doubtless be many who criticize “Ahed’s Knee” as a deeply anti-Israeli film – a charge that was previously lobbed against “Synonyms.” Make no mistake, Lapid has delivered an acutely personal film that writhes with pain and rage. Yet is there any better indicator of the cultural health of a society that its capacity for self-criticism?
A critique as profound and enflamed as “Ahed’s Knee” can only come from a place of deep love.