‘Ahed’s Knee’ (‘Ha’berech’): Film Review | Cannes 2021

Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid, who won Berlin’s Golden Bear award in 2019 for ‘Synonyms,’ debuts in the Cannes competition with his latest feature.

Some directors start off wanting to be iconoclasts, their early films marked by transgression and stylistic bravado, only to grow more complacent as time goes on. Usually this is because they want to reach a wider public, make it rich or make a Marvel movie (often all of the above), or else it’s just because age can sometimes do that to you.

Such is not the case with 45-year-old Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid, who, for his fifth feature, has made his most radical movie yet. An abrasive, cinematically bold auto-fiction about a filmmaker fighting off personal, professional and political demons while on a trip to present one of his movies, Ahed’s Knee (Ha’berech) represents a step toward something even more provocative after the 2019 Golden Bear winner, Synonyms. It’s a film that is certain to please Lapid’s fans, and perhaps garner him some new admirers, though not necessarily one that will win over an audience.

Ahed’s Knee

The Bottom Line

A blistering cri de coeur from a provocative auteur.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Avshalom Pollak, Nur Fibak, Yoram Honig, Lidor Ederi, Yonathan Kugler, Yehonathan Vilozni, Naama Preis
Director/screenwriter: Nadav Lapid

1 hour 49 minutes

And yet that seems to be the point: Lapid isn’t warming up to us as much as he’s challenging us to accept his vision — both of the cinema, which he sees as an art where one should be able to push boundaries, where anything goes as long as you make it yours; and also of his homeland, Israel, which he depicts as a nation rotting at the core, undercut by hegemonic powers that are destroying culture from within.

Made after the death of the director’s mother, Era Lapid, who edited all of his previous features, Ahed’s Knee is also an act of mourning for a relationship that was clearly a pivotal part of the auteur’s career and life. Here, the filmmaker, who is named Y and played with sweaty gravitas by actor and choreographer Avshalom Pollak, shoots poetic videos that he sends by phone to his mom, a screenwriter stricken with lung cancer.

That backstory helps partially explain the dark forces driving Y throughout the movie, but there’s something even darker afoot — a growing sentiment of desperation that builds and builds until it comes bursting out in an explosive monologue during the last act. Shouting on top of a mountain, in a sequence that feels nearly biblical, Y chastises a “government that hates all human beauty,” exclaiming how he wants to “puke Israel out with a scream,” which is more or less what Lapid has Pollak do in that sequence.

Suffice it to say that the director didn’t vote for Bibi Netanyahu or his predecessor Ariel Sharon, although Ahed’s Knee is more than just a long rant against the Likud party and its policies. As we follow Y from a Tel Aviv office where he’s casting his next project — about a young female protester named Ahed who received a threat on Twitter that she should be shot in the kneecap — to a journey he takes into the southeastern valley of Aravah, where he’s greeted by a well-meaning if conflicted cultural administrator, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), we become intimate with a difficult man who may be in the midst of a midlife crisis. Unless, with his leather jacket and constant scowl, he’s that way all of the time — in which case, good luck.

The plot itself is relatively simple, revolving around a document that Yahalom wants Y to sign so that he can get paid for the screening, and which represents a not-very-subtle attempt by the Israeli government to control and censor artistic creation. But the film is really striving for something else: a sort of outer depiction of inner strife, with the arid desert landscapes serving as an epic backdrop for all the turmoil Y is experiencing.

Lapid captures that tension using an array of stylistic mechanisms, working with regular cinematographer Shaï Goldman and sound designer Aviv Aldema (Where is Anne Frank?) to make every shot and cut deeply felt. From the opening, which tracks a motorcycle racing through a loud and rainy Tel Aviv as if it were braving the world’s deadliest thunderstorm, to the scenes in Aravah where the camera whip-pans, spins on its axis, leaps into the air and gets wrangled to all kinds of vehicles, we are plunged into a freewheelingly subjective viewpoint that often becomes Y’s own POV.

Despite all the swagger, this is not style for style’s sake. It’s more about Lapid inventing his own language: one that’s highly personal, but also tries to expand horizons at a time when films tend to resemble TV shows more and more, especially in how they’re directed.

So if, for instance, the filmmaker suddenly throws in a dance scene set to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” or another one, during a series of flashbacks involving Y’s military service, where IDF soldiers chaotically mosh to a song from Israel’s very own Rage Against the Machine, then one has to be willing to follow him down those rabbit holes. Still, nothing really seems gratuitous in the sense that Lapid is doing it all out of his love for the cinema — much more so than out of love for his country, or at least for Israel as it is right now.

These tendencies were already apparent in his other movies, especially Synonyms and The Kindergarten Teacher, the latter of which played Cannes’ Critics’ Week. Both were autographical works as well, but neither had the auteur turning the camera on himself — and in on itself — as much as here. It’s a feat of self-flagellation and self-aggrandizement that will be off-putting for certain people in the way that Y’s cocky, sometimes abusive behavior turns the whole town against him during the finale. And yet Ahed’s Knee isn’t a film where Lapid is asking you to love or hate him or his alter-ego. He’s asking you to look and listen.

Full credits

Production companies: Les Films du Bal, Komplizen Film, Pie Films
Cast: Avshalom Pollak, Nur Fibak, Yoram Honig, Lidor Ederi, Yonathan Kugler, Yehonathan Vilozni, Naama Preis
Director, screenwriter: Nadav Lapid
Producer: Judith Lou Levy
Executive producer: Zehava Shekel
Director of photography: Shaï Goldman
Production designer: Pascale Consigny
Costumer designer: Khadija Zeggaï
Editor: Nili Feller
Sound designer: Aviv Aldema
Sales: Kinology

1 hour 49 minutes