CAPSULE: CARMEL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Amos Gitai

FEATURING: Amos Gitai,  (voice)

PLOT: A series of autobiographical reflections mix with impressionistic recreations of a battle between Romans and Jews and poetry read by Jean Moreau.

Still from Carmel (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are a few moments of effective weirdness, most of Carmel is too personal to convey much meaning to anyone other than its director.  Far too much of the movie is misty flashbacks of characters we can’t place fondly reading letters from relatives we don’t know.

COMMENTSCarmel is a confusing movie, and its lack of urgency about telling a story combined with disinterest in avoiding dull patches doesn’t serve it well.  To give it its due, it does announce itself as a “poem”—one supposedly “about people, what they think and what they want and what they think they want”—providing ample warning that, if you don’t like to read poetry, you’re probably not going to like this movie.  Of course, that’s a very different proposition from saying that if you do like to read poetry, you will like this film.  Scattered interesting images and turns of phrase aren’t enough to make great verse; good poetry, after all, exhibits focus, discipline, and communication, which are Carmel‘s weak points.  That said, Carmel does turn a few fine film phrases, which save it from being a complete, solipsistic waste of time.  The first of these phrases happens early on, when Gitai evokes an ancient battle between Romans and Jews.  Moreau narrates the battle over Hebrew dialogue, and, further in the sonic background, an English-speaking voice (could it be Sam Fuller, who makes it into the credits?) chronicles the exact same events, but out of phase with the primary narration.  Visually, two (sometimes three) overlapping images play onscreen at the same time, all featuring centurions in horsehair helmets battling robed Jews by torchlight.  The effect is dreamy and abstract, rather than chaotic; this montage would be successful if were extracted and presented as a short film all its own.  We fast-forward in history for the film’s second meaningful moment, which also utilizes the overlapping dialogue motif.  A father (Gitai himself) is searching for his recently-deployed soldier son at a gas station.  He shares coffee with the attendant, but their attempt at conversation, while taking the outward form of a dialogue, drifts into the two men delivering two completely unrelated monologues.  A metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian relations?  Both those bits occur in the movie’s first third, and (besides an unexpected re-occurrence of the battle scene at the movie’s midpoint) we have to wait almost to the end before encountering the movie’s third interesting interlude, a bizarre bit involving a young couple who wander into an old woman’s home during a terrorist attack, borrow gas masks, recite prophecies and poems, briefly make out, and leave when the air sirens fade out (promising to return for a chat if they’re ever in the neighborhood).  The vast valleys between Carmel‘s high points, however, are filled with autobiographical boredom.  There are pretty establishing shots that establish nothing, and lots of readings of old family letters that lead to pastoral flashbacks.  Characters are shown, but not introduced.  Who is the red-haired boy who writes letters home from boarding school?  One of Gitai’s sons, maybe the one who later becomes a soldier, or Gitai himself as a kid?  (It doesn’t help that the lad looks like no one else in Carmel, not even the kid Gitai is shown auditioning to play the role of his son in [another?] movie).  Who is the pretty brunette woman shown endlessly looking at herself in the mirror while an opera aria plays—a younger version of Gitai’s mother?  Of his wife?  A daughter?  The familial relationships, along with the symbolism, can probably be untangled, but the author gives you little inducement to want to figure out who is who or what they really want, as opposed to what they think they want.  It’s all important to Gitai, but he never makes it important to us—the film seems aimed at an audience of one.

The “Carmel” of the title may refer to Mount Carmel, which is associated with the Old Testament prophet Elijah. There are several other towns and settlements in Israel called “Carmel,” including one that was involved in the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the second century A.D.—could this be the site of the battle shown in the film?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gitai seems to care little about what the audience will glean from this oddity, which is its strength and weakness… fuses documentary, narrative and stream of conscious forms in creating a singular, occasionally exasperating, work.”–Mark Keizer, Box Office Magazine (contemporaneous)

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