Dir/scr: Dror Shaul. Is-Ger-Fr-Jap.2006. 100mins
Dror Shaul's Sweet Mud features the obligatorydisclaimer at the end of the credits about how none of the characters nor events are based on real-life. But it does not take agenius to figure out that it is an intensely personal settling of accounts, anangry and bitter portrait of the suffocating kibbutz society and thenon-conformists who were unlucky enough to be delivered into its hands.
One could argue that such anattack on the kibbutzim, the voluntary Israeli version of the Soviet kolkhoz,is somewhat dated, given that this ideological dream of an egalitarian societyand its communal agricultural units is on its way to extinction. But Dror Shaul's second film isevidently intended to purge such feelings.
Combining fierce, if one-sidedsocial, comment with a coming-of-age story that takes a back seat for much ofthe proceedings, Sweet Mud ispowerful enough to emotionally draw an audience into its intensely felt plot.As such it should do well not only in festivals, but also rack up some sales interest(negotiations are ongoing for an agent to be appointed). After premiering atJerusalem, it enjoys a North American premiere at Toronto (Contemporary WorldCinema) next month.
Flashing back 30 years to a timewhen the kibbutz still preserved some of its pioneering aura, Shaul's picture tells the story of Dvir(Steinhof), a 12-year-old introvert whose father diedmysteriously in what he is repeatedly told was "an accident". Sincethen his mother, Miri (Yudkevitch),to who Dvir is obsessively attached, has gradually losther mind.
Dvir's older brother, on the eve of being drafted formilitary service, is busy flirting with girls his own age, while hisgrandparents (Karmon and Zur)are quietly grieving for their lost son and evidently blame Mirifor whatever happened.
Meanwhile the rest of thekibbutz acts in a righteous manner fit for tunnel-vision idealists, condoningany digressions or perversions so long as they do not distract them from theirgoal of a socialist nirvana.
The opening scene, showingone kibbutz official masturbating in the stalls with his favourite cow, setsthe tone. It is re-enforced later when the kibbutz secretary attempts tosqueeze sexual favours from Dvir's disturbed mother,or when the general assembly, whose petty mind is painfully evident, votes tobanish the mother's elderly Swiss suitor (Henri Garcin)because he dared raise a hand in defence of Dvir.
Miri's condition deteriorates after she rejects, for noevident reason, the invitation to take her children to a better future inSwitzerland (there is nothing to keep her at the kibbutz). Eventually her relianceon drugs increases until there is nothing left for Dvirto do but help her out of an unbearable existence.
In production for more thanfive years Shaul's picture may not be the first to casta jaundiced eye on life in a kibbutz but it is probably the angriest, paintingit as a petty, mindless, short-sighted and perverse institution, unfit forsensitive individuals with a will of their own.
The only ones that areexcused in his script - developed through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in2003 - are the outcasts, whether foreigner volunteers who look at it all as anexotic experience for their CVs, or the individuals who refuse to be eitherprotected or ruled by an arbitrary majority.
Lavishly shot, the handsomenatural landscapes underline even more the grimness of the story. The childishceremonies accompanying the bar-mitzvah rites of passage from childhood tomaturity take on a grotesque dimension that deprives them of any charm they mayhave had for adolescents at that time.
The insistent lack ofperspective, which allows no other viewpoint that that of the Shaul, willdisturb some audiences, who may find his intolerance not dissimilar to that ofthe characters he criticises.
The cast of seasoned acting veteranssuch as Joseph Karmon, Gal Zayidand Idit Tzur do acommendable if predictable job, although the likes of RivkaNeumann and Shai Avivi dodisplay a tendency to go over the top.
But all are outshone by thesincerity of the younger and inexperienced cast members, particularly Tomer Steinhof who plays thelead. Ronit Yudkevitchinvests much feeling in the pivotal part of the mother, but looks far tooyouthful for the role of a woman whose older son is going to the army.
Israel Film Fund