‘Ahed’s Knee’ Review: Startling, Intellectually Bruising Israeli Drama

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There are conflicts within conflicts and crises within crises in Nadav Lapid’s astonishing, assaultive “Ahed’s Knee,” a reckless act of aggression not only against creeping state-mandated cultural oppression, but against viewer sensibilities and about a century of cinematic tradition. Quite possibly brilliant, and very definitely all but unbearable, “Ahed’s Knee” is filmmaking as hostage-taking. If such language seems charged, this is Nadav Lapid: All language is charged.

Words here, as wielded by Y (Avshalom Pollak), the celebrated Israeli film director who, in the course of his visit to a small desert town in the arid Arava region will spray them about like machine-gunfire, are loaded, but never ambiguous. This is a difficult film but not because it works to conceal its creator’s intent. Quite the contrary, it is difficult because we are not usually confronted by seriousness this sincere, by despair this direct.

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There is little subtlety here — hard to see how any film in which a character bellows “I will puke the Israel out of me into the face of your Minister for Culture” could claim such. And where even the director’s superb, beautifully maddening Berlin-winner “Synonyms” made its self-annihilating protagonist’s fixation with syntax into an almost rhapsodic musical continuum, “Ahed’s Knee” has an aesthetic that is all hard edges, full-stops, non-sequiturs and brutal whip-pans. It grinds as uncomfortably as a joint without cartilage.

Even the English title is fraught, crammed, as much as any two words can be, with allusive subtext. Some of it is a pin through the heart of the movie’s themes and style. Some of it, like the apparent reference to Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee,” is less immediately intelligible. In Rohmer’s film, the young woman’s knee was the site of desire; here, the knee of Ahed (Tamimi, a Palestinian protestor who went to prison in 2018 for slapping a soldier) is the place into which an Israeli member of parliament suggested a bullet be fired, to prevent her from ever walking again.

That real-life incident has inspired Y to make a video installation, which he is casting when called away to the small town of Sapir to present a film of his. He is met by Yahalom (Nur Fibak), the surprisingly young, pretty Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture’s Libraries department. Yahalom is as smiling, trusting and open as Y is cynical (except in his tender phone calls to his ailing mother), an arch contrast given that Lapid’s portrayal of his own avatar is merciless in its unlikability. Y might be an auteur, but he is no aesthete. In little moments unseen by others, he is positively boorish, which is pretty rich for a guy derisively catcalling “vulgarity’s victory march” elsewhere. Perhaps that is why the words he, in the end, responds to most viscerally are words, unlike his, of kindness: No one wants to hear someone tell them that they are a good person as much as someone who suspects it might not be true.

And it really might not be: When Yahalom confesses to Y that she also hates the increased strictures handed down by her bosses, particularly the form that Y must sign that guarantees he will only speak on the podium about certain state-sanctioned topics (the form can be seen to stand for the current Culture Loyalty bill which hangs like a sword of Damocles over Israel’s artists and free-speech advocates), Y spots an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the system — but only at the cost of ruining Yahalom.

This loose outline, however, cannot adequately convey just how very strange and abrasive “Ahed’s Knee” is, especially in Shaï Goldman’s shooting style, which often zips along Y’s line of sight, reducing the space in between to shaky motion-sickness blur. Nili Feller’s editing follows suit, and so where Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” was steady and watchful and “Synonyms” was sinuous, “Ahed’s Knee” is in smithereens, shattered into zig-zag lines and fragmentary closeups of the body’s least photogenic regions: ears, crotches, knees, teeth, the puffy folds of eyelids, the dirty soles of calloused feet. There are flights of fancy and flashes of humor both mordant and silly: the story of Y’s time in military service which he does not, contrary to his own exhortations, “keep short”; the strange music-video interlude with lipsticked women in combat fatigues posing pornily with guns; the sudden relief that is hearing Vanessa Paradis’ “Be My Baby” burst out like a pop of pink bubblegum on the soundtrack.

But far more lasting than that playfulness, and running deeper even than the bite of helpless anger at Y’s impossible moral quandary, there is a fearsome sadness. “Ahed’s Knee” has the feeling of a film made quickly, rashly, before anyone could shut it down, but also one conceived in a state of grief and stuck, for the duration, in its furious second stage. If you didn’t know that it was written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Lapid’s mother (who was his editor on all his other features) you might guess as much from this undertow of intense loss, a bewildered, belligerent sorrow from which no words, not even such perfectly simple and lovely words as “You are good,” can save you.

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