In Israeli writer-director Nir Bergman's Broken Wings, we never see an automatic weapon, a military roadblock or a horrific explosion on a city street. Rather than dealing with the volatile politics of the Middle East, this quiet, soul-wrenching film examines the unresolved traumas of one middle-class family trying to cope with the death of a husband/father, and with a second crisis that threatens to tear the troubled household apart for good.
Bergman, a 35-year-old film school graduate making his first feature, indulges here and there in TV-movie conventions -- a couple of outbursts seem just now liberated from the shrink-wrap, and some of the plotting is contrived. But he also has a keen instinct for the kind of telling epiphanies we find in a lot of short fiction these days, and the glimpses he gives us into everyday life in Haifa and Tel Aviv will likely fascinate American audiences whose impressions of Israel come mainly from CNN or three-alarm commentaries on the editorial page. This slice of life feels like life, with a minimum of sentimentality and histrionics.
For the Ulman family, things could hardly seem worse. Nine months after her husband died in a freak accident, Dafna Ulman (Israeli stage star Orli Zilbershatz-Banai) finds herself working the night shift as a midwife in a Haifa hospital. She comes home distressed, her face creased with exhaustion. Meanwhile, her four fatherless children -- all played by extraordinarily gifted actors -- are plagued with emotional problems. Little Bahr (Eliana Magon) worries about her first day in kindergarten and pretends to wet her bed as a play for attention. Eleven-year-old Ido (Daniel Magon) falls prey to schoolyard bullies and tests himself with dangerous leaping stunts. Yair, age sixteen (Nitai Gvirtz), was last year a budding writer and basketball player; now he's a fulltime nihilist who says he's "a speck of dust in the universe" and has quit school to hand out flyers on the subway while hiding in a mouse costume. Most touching of all, seventeen-year-old Maya (delicate Maya Maron) grapples with her nagging hurt by bickering with Mom and singing melancholy ballads about her lost father.
For the most part, Bergman juggles these tangles of disturbance with grace, good humor and insight. When the work-weary Dafna, encouraged by friends, shows up to record a "dating video," she's so tired that she keeps mangling the introduction and finally gives up in comic despair. The verbal jousting between the two teenagers -- one part affection, one part sibling rivalry -- is tone-perfect even for those of us who don't understand Hebrew, and the director handles the uneasy adolescent romances Maya and Yair are trying to conduct with the knowingness of someone not long out of high school himself.
Broken Wings' great strength is that it doesn't overreach. These characters undergo no enormous sea-changes, no crazy upheavals. Instead, they find themselves trying to roll with the punches -- trying to maintain and survive -- as they adjust to hardships and wrestle with guilt and crisis. The mother's courage takes major effort, but the splendidly understated Zibershatz-Banai never drags Dafna off into the sour realm of martyrdom. For the frail-looking but willful Maya, the mystery is one of divided loyalty: she wants to reconcile with her mother, but Dad's ghost keeps intervening. It comes as no surprise that Bergman is himself a child of divorce: when it comes to exposing the disconnections and confusions in a vexed family, he's right on the money. The second trial he visits upon the beleaguered Ulmans may seem a bit convenient, dramatically speaking, but in the end he makes it work for him. Threatened with emotional extinction, mother and children try to call up what's best in themselves. We aren't sure if they'll make it, but their creator has to good sense to give each of them a puncher's chance without resorting to any simple solutions. This is a movie with four children at hand, but its views of ambiguity and human complexity are distinctly grown-up.
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While they're at it, Bergman and his able cinematographer, Valentin Belonogov, provide an arresting, real-life tour of the port city of Haifa (Bergman's home town), from the train station to the hospital to the harbor, and when young Maya, in a fit of anguish, jumps on a train to Tel Aviv so she can keep a date in a recording studio, we get a good look at that place, too, without the usual TV-camera urgency. Last year, an American-born, Israeli-educated filmmaker named Eitan Gorlin enraged quite a few people with The Holy Land, a peek into the flammable demi-monde of Jerusalem, where an uncertain rabbinical student fell in love with a magnetic Russian prostitute. Bergman's work in Broken Wings is certainly not as controversial, but it, too, has that crucial thing many moviegoers on this side of the Atlantic yearn for -- a native view of Israeli life unimpeded by western preconceptions or TV-anchor tilt. Let's hope for more.