Kneedful Things: Lapid Highlights Complex Conflicts in Indignant Screech
The entirety of Ahed’s Knee, the fourth film from Israel’s Nadav Lapid, is formatted to aggravate the senses in a semi-self reflexive exercise on the intersection of creativity and bureaucracy. As loquacious as his 2019 Golden Bear winner Synonyms (review) but revisiting the obvious simmering conflicts in Israel (as in his 2011 debut Policeman), it’s brazen, rowdy and often frustrating, especially as affixed on the shoulders of a mostly unlikeable protagonist who also serves as a caricature for the director himself.
If the objective is to unsettle, Lapid succeeds with his blatant attempt yet. What begins as a formidable attempt to critique nationalism, tyranny, and xenophobia within Israel’s government segues into a surprisingly, perhaps inevitable, diminishment into the realm of artistic cruelty and egocentrism. If the lesson to be learned is how the privilege of the artist also requires they stand on the backs of or necessitate success on the sacrifice of others, it certainly couldn’t feel more astute.
Lapid opens his film by placing us on edge, the loud growl of a motorcycle in the pouring rain introduces an actor auditioning for the lead role in Y’s (Avshalom Pollak) latest project, The Knee of Ahed Tamimi, an account of the Palestinian activist whose actions resulted in a tweet from Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, suggesting she should be shot in the knee to face eternal house arrest. For as much as Lapid’s title suggests cinema’s other famous knee courtesy of Eric Rohmer, we couldn’t be farther from the patella’s penchant for desire.
As “Welcome to the Jungle” introduces us to another superior soundtrack selection from Lapid, the film veers into its real Russian doll aesthetic as Y attends a screening of his last film in Arava, where Yahalom (Our Fibak) the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Culture’s Libraries Department greets him. Her youth invites an awkward but potent flirtation, where we learn Y is expected to sign an official form agreeing to specific sanctioned topics during the film’s Q+A. Y uses this as an opportunity to manipulate her sympathies for a publicity press stunt, leading them both to a precipice. Reuniting with Synonyms DP Shai Goldman, the whirling dervish camerawork assists in disorientation, where the sense of up vs. down, right vs. wrong, is always in flux.
Despite a few moments of comedic intention, Ahed’s Knee plays like more of a sober conversation piece, where none of its characters are in a position to do the right thing (or at least make enough of a personal sacrifice to do so). In the film’s most delirious moments, Y recounts a tale from his military service on the Syrian-Lebanese border, producing flashbacks which match the tragic beauty of Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (2017). We’re meant to draw conclusions about Y’s character as a human from these moments, but instead they create ambiguities, which leads to a dubious, exaggerated finale unable to command the powerful considerations leading up to it.
In a certain sense, it’s a film wherein a powerful man manipulates the attractions of a beautiful younger woman for his own gain under the guise of national integrity (think Mel Gibson’s journalist compromising Sigourney Weaver’s attache in The Year of Living Dangerously, 1983). And in its smaller scale way, Ahed’s Knee works most effectively, with humans using one another through sinister games. The crescendo is Pollak’s fiery monologue about the state of Israel, so angry and eloquent it recalls the intensity of a Klaus Kinski (and all the alarming hysteria such a comparison warrants). But it’s also a beautifully rendered think piece, filled with poetic asides (“the universe bubbles over with sinister beauty,” indeed). Meant to provoke, in which it certainly succeeds, Ahed’s Knee may feel sometimes shrill, but it’s also an unpredictable, refreshing howl.
Reviewed on July 7th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 109 Mins