Anti-war messages, as much electric guitar riffs, are a common theme of rock musicals from “Hair” to “American Idiot.” It’s no surprise that Israel has a peacenik rock opera, too, but you may find yourself bewildered by what it has to say.
Keren Yedaya’s “Red Fields” (2019), which opens the New York Sephardic Film Festival February 23, blends the abject victimhood-turned-messianic breakthrough of The Who’s “Tommy,” the hawkish lunacy of “Doctor Strangelove” and the blue-collar romance of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi into a Molotov cocktail musical that, while incendiary in its ideas, doesn’t quite combust with meaning.
An adaptation of the cult Israeli rock opera “Mami” (1986), by playwright Hillel Mittelpunkt and musicians Ehud Banai and Yossi Mar Haim, the film follows Mami (Neta Elkayam), a gas station worker in a settlement in southern Israel. Her life is upended when her husband, Nissim (Ami Abu) returns home from war in a vegetative state — which war is never specified and the reveal happens off screen through narration. The film slowly spirals from credible melodrama into the realm of the surreal.
The prologue, sung by the Narrator (Israeli rock star Dudu Tassa, who also worked on adapting the music by Banai and Mar Chaim) is a staid affair. Plaintive, Sephardic violin underscore Mami as she rearranges lighters on a rack in the gas station, massages her sore ankle or walks to and from her humble flat. When she leaves for Tel Aviv, bringing her husband along in a wheelchair, cartoonishly unsavory characters flock to her and Yedeya’s style grows more extravagant, allowing bursts of neon and club music as Mami takes a job at a bar.
While the backdrop of Mami’s world emerged from a place of lived-in authenticity, a more pointed and uncomfortable commentary beckons in Tel Aviv.
In a deeply unsettling number called “The Rape Song,” which, even more distressingly, was popular among some IDF cadets, who sang its refrain of “Mami, open your legs,” as they ran laps,, a Palestinian man sings of the plight of his people while saying he’ll “Redeem Palestine” by sexually assaulting her. While the man never touches her or comes close, and her coworker intercedes, the room is brutally raided by IDF soldiers.
If the intent in the sequence — as the lyrics that aren’t sexual suggest — is to show a kind of solidarity with Palestinians, couching the one dialog directly addressing the matter in a revenge rape scenario is pretty appalling.
Yet the film doesn’t linger long on that moment’s implications. Instead Mami is whisked away to the clutches of a garish madame and then a lab where an eleventh hour sci-fi element is introduced. We lose the desert landscape where the Narrator, backed by an ensemble of strings, clarinets, guitar, keyboard and banjo, solemnly exposits, and enter a kind of B-movie mania by way of absurdist greats.
The final third of “Red Fields” feels like an entirely different movie in the mode of Eugene Ionesco or Jean Genet, meditating, belatedly, on political leadership, demagoguery and warmongering by elevating Mami to prophet-like status.
“War is good,” Mami sings to a war room packed with generals, “an abscess that needs to be drained.” Like that metaphor, this twist doesn’t really work — but it’s fun to watch.
Tassa and Elkayam sound great and the songs, if not catchy, are quite beautiful, ranging from house music to ballads with Mediterranean trills to “Evita”-like stump speech montages. One can’t say, however, that the film ever transcends a patchwork quality. This means that we lose the vital message of empathy and militancy.
“Red Fields” surprises — and that’s part of its pleasure — but it lacks a tonal and thematic unity that could lift it above a cult novelty. As it is, it feels like a series of well-produced music videos that share artists and not much else in common.
Granted, “Red Fields” resolves in a similar place to where it began, returning Mami home after a geopolitical odyssey in odyssey in the city. The end erases many of the detours that preceded it. In a way, this resetting does have a power. Even after all the madcap diversions, we come back to war. The “Red Fields” — or battlegrounds — are a constant, no matter what else is going on.
The New York Sephardic Film Festival is hosted by the American Sephardi Federation at the Center for Jewish History.
Correction, February 23, 7:54 am: A previous version of this article stated that Hillel Mittelpunkt wrote the music for “Mami.” His collaborators, Yossi Mar Haim and Ehud Banai did.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.