LIST CANDIDATE: SAINT CLARA [CLARA HAKEDOSHA] (1996)

DIRECTED BY: , Ori Sivan

FEATURING: Lucy Dubinchik, Halil Elohev, Johnny Peterson, Yigal Naor, Israel Damidov, Joe El Dror

PLOT: An Israeli girl uses her psychic powers to help classmates cheat on tests, but she will

Still from Saint Clara [Clara Hakedosha] (1996)

lose them if she falls in love.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTClara Hakedosha mixes quirkiness, magical realism, coming-of-age drama and light absurdity together in exotic and unfamiliar proportions, like a postmodern twist on some ancient Israeli narrative recipe.  After watching it twice and thinking about it for weeks, I’m still not sure I know what the point is, and can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not.  Maybe that’s the sign of a truly weird movie?

COMMENTS: Lucy Dubinchik plays 13-year old Clara, “a weird Russian girl with purple eyes,” with a blank face that makes it hard to figure out what she’s thinking or feeling.  Given that her character is defined by her mysterious psychic powers, it’s appropriate that she’s inscrutable; but it’s still a relief when a recognizable emotion like fear or contentment briefly flits across her face.  Though it often does an excellent job of evoking that period of early adolescence on the eve of your first kiss, the filmmakers’ motives in Saint Clara can be as inscrutable as those of a 13-year old girl—you may find yourself watching the action and wondering what the filmmakers intended you to feel.  For example, there’s a scene where a baseball bat-wielding child gangster (chauffeured by his 16-year old sister) and his female sidekick (in an aviator’s helmet) demand the passing Clara climb in their convertible: “Get in, fairy.  We’ll take you for a ride in heaven.”  Sitting in the backseat, the kids ride through a neon-drenched city with completely expressionless faces as organ-driven cruising music chugs on in a minor key. Is Clara a captive, or just a kid out on a joyride with schoolmates?  Is her host trying to intimidate her, or make her fall in love with him?  Saint Clara contain odd, alienating moments that strangen what might otherwise be a simple, quirky love story between a boy and his psychic fantasy girl.  There’s the reporter on television with the puffy black hat who’s always warning of impending nuclear or ecological disasters while carrying a lapdog or sporting a yellow raincoat; the constant talk of rebellion, as if the kids are a bunch of Marxist revolutionaries from the 1960s; the peculiar anecdotes their teachers tell about meeting Bobby Fischer and Edith Piaf; Uncle Elvis, a former psychic who lost his powers just as Clara will one day, who walks his pet goat through town like a dog; and there’s the huge bird that crashes through the classroom window one day, somehow turning the sky blood red in the process.  Adolescence here is a brief, bored slice of time perched perpetually on the brink of an apocalypse—although when the disaster finally arrives, it turns out to be a letdown.  For these kids, the onset erotic love entails the loss of childhood magic and vitality. The story is as much, if not more, about Clara’s would-be beau as it is about her; his infatuation with this “weird Russian girl” may cost him his position in the punk pecking order.  Barry Sakharov’s instrumental rock soundtrack, with its main theme with guitars screeching like birds of prey in the distance, adds to the film’s odd ambiance. Saint Clara seems to beg for an allegorical explanation, and there are allusions to political events that may make more sense to an Israeli than to an outsider; but perhaps its only purpose is to capture the iherent surrealism of puberty. If so, it hits the mark squarely.

Co-director Ori Sivan disappeared from the cinema stage but found a home in television, adapting his hit Israeli series “Be Tipul” as “In Treatment” for HBO, starring Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist who is in therapy himself.  The other co-director, Ari Folman, went on to score a big arthouse hit with the fairly weird Waltz With Bashir (2008), an animated examination of the Israeli national conscience, and is currently in post-production on the animated sci-fi adaptation The Congress (see this post).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal, riotous affair… an exhilarating and wildly passionate film debut.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

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