Dir: Tzahi Grad. Israel 2006. 96 mins.
A satirical social comedy turns into a terrific, slow-burn revenge drama in Israeli actor Tzahi Grad's second directorial outing. Though the rough, low-budget production values will put off mainstream distributors, arthouse and genre specialists should take a look at this title, whose strong script and bravura performances - especially from Gal Zaid as the small guy who decides to stand up to the big boss - more than make up for its lack of technical polish.
After lifting first prize at the Haifa film festival in October 2006 (fending off a challenge from the fine My Father My Lord), Foul Gesture disappeared again before reemerging at the Zabaltegi (New Directors) section at this year's San Sebastian festival, where audience response was upbeat. It was still without a sales agent at the time of writing, but that anomaly is unlikely to last long.
The real pleasure of Foul Gesture is the way that it plays with the vendetta genre of the ordinary guy who is pushed to breaking point (Death Sentence, Old Boy), mixing it up with social comedy with a faint Gallic tinge and the sort of in-depth character study that revenge movies rarely attempt.
The film follows a cathartic week in the life of Michael Klienhouse (Gal Zaid), a former computer technician who is trying, and failing, to write a novel while his stressed-out surgeon wife Tamar (Keren Mor) brings in the money and rows with her spouse about who's going to pick up their bullied son David (Tal Grushka) from primary school.
The film is set in a Tel Aviv that could be any chaotic, messy conurbation just about anywhere in the world. On day one - Holocaust Memorial day - Tamar gives the finger to a guy in a showy off-road car who's beeping because she, Michael and David have stopped to buy falafel and are holding up the traffic.
The driver slams into the open door, narrowly missing Tamar, but outwardly calm Michael - the 'rationalist', as his incensed wife calls him - refuses to chase after the culprit. Instead, he goes to the police with the number-plate, only to discover that the driver is a big-shot called Dreyfus (Asher Tsarfati), a former Israeli war hero who is now a home-grown mafia boss with political connections.
The police warn Michael to back off - 'it's only a door' is a recurrent phrase - but Michael insists on contacting Dreyfus so that they can sort out the problem in a civilised fashion.
Things spiral, of course. But the clever thing about the script, backed up by Zaid's fine performance, is the way that Michael's progression from mild-mannered, defeatist family guy to courageous avenging hero is realistic every step of the way - at least until the final showdown, which is so unexpectedly over-the-top it feels like an ironic, tension-releasing nod to the conventions of the genre (at both San Sebastian screenings, the audience burst into applause at this point).
There's a real sense of menace and jeopardy all the way through, especially in a powerfully dramatic scene where Michael takes his son along to meet Dreyfus and his henchmen in a cafe. Dreyfus' HQ is a bar and sex club called the Magic Garden which looks at first glance like an anonymous business hotel; this touch of disorienting ordinariness keeps the symbolism of the place as a playground for the decadent Israeli nomenklatura from getting too heavy.
And the soundtrack - Spanish guitar licks, and a waltz-like theme song, plays nicely against the dark mood of the main revenge plot.
But the film is veined with comedy (not all of it dark) and social satire too - in the stand-off between Tamar and her son-worshipping mother-in-law, or in a recurring gag revolving around the numerous Israeli public holidays where everyone is supposed to stop what they're doing and observe a minute's silence when the sirens sound.
There's also a neat scene in which Michael's wheeler-dealer cousin sells a consignment of Israeli flags to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories - so they can burn them in front of the TV cameras.
Not everything works. Though the editing is mostly tight and elliptical, there are some distracting impressionistic passages that are more style than substance. And one or two cuts in the same scene from one lighting set-up to another reveal the film's shoestring budget. But Foul Gesture has enough verve to overcome its flaws.
Itzhak (Tzahi) Grad
Tnuah Meguna Ltd
Moris ben Mayor