‘A Tramway in Jerusalem’: Film Review | Venice 2018

Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai describes his country’s dizzying contradictions in the microcosm of daily tram riders in ‘A Tramway in Jerusalem.’

It’s curious and no doubt significant that nobody ever seems to get off the tram that gives its name to A Tramway in Jerusalem, Amos Gitai’s free-wheeling set of sketches that never lose sight of his great theme, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This open-ended portrait of Israeli society brings an array of entertaining actors together to talk, sing, harass and comfort each other aboard a means of public transportation that becomes a homey metaphor for the state of the country.

The film screened out of competition in Venice paired with Gitai’s harrowing short doc Letter to a Friend in Gaza, which uses a moving text by Albert Camus to talk about the killings in Gaza, where the Israeli army is currently squared off against Palestinian protesters. This sets the tragic stage for A Tramway in Jerusalem, which opens with a woman singing opera.

The Bottom Line

A multi-cultural, tragi-comic society rides around in circles.

She’s not the only one who expresses herself through music. A skilled oud player weaves a spell for two French tourists, a father (engagingly played by Mathieu Almaric) and his young son, who is seeing Jerusalem for the first time. They make themselves right at home, lying unselfconsciously on the floor of the tram while they listen. Later, Almaric has his leg pulled by a local couple who laugh at his naïve view of Israel as being “fantastic” because the sun is shining.

Gitai offers another slice of Jewish society in a group of Hassidic men who sing a rousing religious chorus together: “The world is a narrow bridge/ The main thing is not to be afraid.”

There are also Palestinian tram riders. A tired worker on his way home is wrongfully accused of harassment by a bigoted young woman, who keeps at him until a security guard wrestles him to the floor. End of anecdote. Another sketch has a more positive outcome: A sophisticated Palestinian girl bonds with a Jewish girl of the same age as they wait for the tram. They both have multiple identities — the Palestinian has a Dutch passport because of a former husband and the other woman has a multiple-country background. In fact, they have a lot in common. When they get on the tram, the same security guard we saw earlier demands to see the first girl’s papers and, when she produces a Dutch passport, gives her a hard time. The Jewish girl stares him down and, thanks to her solidarity, he shrugs and shuffles off.

Embodying the film’s tragicomedy is a Catholic priest (played by Italian stage actor Pippo Delbono) who rattles on mournfully, in Italian, to anyone who will listen about the holy city where the curse of God falls on three religions.

These well-acted short pieces make their points in a variety of tones, and Gitai is at the top of his game in the comic sketches. When a young couple enthusiastically recognizes a radical radio host standing near them, he looks flattered and reads the text of his next show extolling Leon Trotsky to them. The crowning jewel, however, involves a big blonde mother sitting with her 24-year-old son, who hangs on her every word as she casually chats to everyone around her about his bachelorhood and how much it hurts her. The camera stays fixed on her and we only hear the replies of the characters offscreen, which makes it even funnier.

Faces are what Gitai is after, not the bus stops or locations which are barely seen. The streets fly by in the background as though to say that the place is unimportant, it’s the people’s attitudes that count. The dialogue is heard in an impressive babel of languages — Hebrew, Arabic, French, Italian, Yiddish, German and Ladino.

Production companies: Agav Films, CDP
Cast: Mathieu Almaric, Pippo Delbono, Noa Ahinoamam Nini, Hanna Laszlo, Yael Abecassis, Yuval Scharf, Karen Mor, Lamis Amar, Mustafa Mazi, Maisa Abed Elhadi, Hilla Vidor, Livo Lironm Maya Nashashibi, Ram Spinoza, Gilles Ben David, Marie Louise Bondy.
Director: Amos Gitai
Screenwriters: Marie-Jose Sanselme
Producers: Laurent Truchot, Catherine Dussart, Amos Gitai
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designers: Maria Volfman, Yaron Ravid
Costume designer: Rona Doron
Editor: Yuval Orr
Music: Louis Sclavis, Alex Claude
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
World sales: Orange Studio

94 minutes