Middle East Tensions Backdrop for Female Empowerment Flick from Israel
Smadar (Smadar Sayar) and Mirit (Neama Schendar) are typical eighteen year-old girls. They both are a little boy crazy and are thus obsessed with their appearance and the opposite sex. And, given the onset of adulthood, they are also impatient to discover what that next stage of their lives will bring.
But because they are Israeli, they have to put any plans for higher education or a career on hold, since they’ve been drafted into the army, due to the country’s policy of compulsory military service. This means that they don’t have any time for school, or to date or to doll themselves up. Instead, they must spend most of their days in uniform on patrol in Jerusalem, a city ever on edge and just another suicide bomb away from being rattled to its very core.
The task these new recruits are dispatched daily to handle sounds simple enough, namely, to pound the pavement and ride the buses to stop anyone who looks like an Arab, in order to search them and to ask for identification. But while Mirit is conscientious and is inclined to take her job seriously, Smadar is a slacker who could care less about the assignment, since she is very reluctant about being in the military in the first place.
Nonetheless, the ill-matched pair are forced to serve as partners, and the stark contrast and simmering tension between the two is what supplies the cinematic texture to Close to Home, a most impressive writing and directorial debut by Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hagar, both veterans of the Israeli Army.
This slice-of-life adventure is very effective at portraying the plight of young females who suddenly find themselves on the frontlines of the war on terrorism. For as Vidi describes the fish-out-of-water experience, “It’s strange because it’s a male system. Women don’t belong to this system.” So, she presents her squabbling protagonists sympathetically, as if they are victims of a military that wasn’t created with their interests in mind.
For it is fairly obvious that Smadar and Mirit are ill-equipped emotionally, and would really prefer to be anywhere else than to be hunting for suicide bombers. Curiously, the even-handed movie is equally empathetic in its treatment of Arabs, showing how they are repeatedly profile-stopped and subjected arbitrarily to invasions of privacy. These periodic frisks permit an ominous air to permeate the otherwise ordinary hustle and bustle of the busy metropolis.
The plot finally thickens after a bomb goes off downtown, a development which retroactively supplies a rationale for the obsession with vigilance. At this juncture, with bodies strewn all over the street, the girls find themselves right in the midst of the madness, and must mature instantly to help handle the situation.
Despite the fanfare and a flurry of supporting characters from army superiors to family members to romantic interests, Close to Home, at heart, remains an uncanny coming-of-age examination of the different ways in which two women adapt to circumstances beyond their control to survive a situation bigger than either of them.
Excellent (4 stars)
In Hebrew and English with subtitles.
Running time: 95 minutes
Studio: IFC First Take