Subtlety and understatement are not the Israeli way; I suppose that’s why not very many films rooted in the noir tradition get made in these parts. We have the cynicism and sexual tension that defines the genre, true; just not enough restraint.
Sukariyot (Sweets), Joseph Pitchadze’s first film in almost a decade, isn’t exactly film noir, but it embraces a lot of the tropes: crime, revenge, hit men lurking in the shadows, a femme fatale, misconceived sexual liaisons. It also has a German businessman who brings a full Nazi uniform along with him when he visits Jerusalem on business. You know how it is; you never know when you might need these things.
But let’s go back a little bit. Sukariyot is about sweets, but only just about. Salah (Makram Khoury) is a Christian Arab-Israeli entrepreneur with an eye to breaking new markets. A high concept sweet shop, in a prominent location in the Old City, has potential; with a potential German partner (the veteran British actor Michael Sarne) on the cards, it looks like a done deal.
If only. This particular market happens to be controlled by HaHevra, owned by Klausner (Shmuel Vilonzi). Klausner is proud, pompous and still smarting after Saleh made inroads previously into his coffee business. But it’s not just a matter of profits; Klausner thinks of himself as a patriotic Israel, and casts the defense of his turf as a matter of Zionist pride, standing firm against rapacious Arabs (he puts it in more colourful terms).
So, let’s imagine for a moment that you are the bloviating CEO of an Israeli company (examples abound all around us), minded to send a message to an upstart competitor. What would you do? Intensive marketing, advertisements, special offers, the usual commercial leverage to shove them out of the market, no? Me too. But not Klausner. It’s a matter of national pride, you see, and a defined and unambiguous message is what is required. So, he secures the services of two…let’s call them professionals. Called Yuli and August (July and August, for the non-Hebrew speakers amongst us.) Yuli (Moni Moshonov) appears to possess a preternatural calm, whilst August…well August (Ezra Kafri) seems rather emotional. Can you see where this is going? Exactly. It isn’t going to end terribly well.
Sukariyot relies as much on style as it does on substance, which in this case is probably a good thing. The temptation would be to think of it as an allegory of sorts, about the failures of political and social engagement in this complicated corner of the Mediterranean. But, whilst it ticks all the right boxes for politically-inflected storytelling, it never feels that the film is particularly committed to this line of thought. Strangely enough, it is only when matters begin to get seriously out of hand (Klausner leaves an explosive little present for Saleh; Saleh retaliates inventively with a pig’s head) that various digressive strands begin to pull themselves together. Just to complicate matters, Saleh’s factotum falls in love with Claudia, the German’s industrialist’s French girlfriend (try saying with a mouth full of sweets); August, briefly in Paris and brooding, falls in love with a pastry. Seriously. But it does come together, the film teasing out a path between black comedy and absurdist thriller. It reminded me not a little of Grosse Point Blank, albeit with somewhat more cynical overtones.
And I think it’s that, the cynicism that pervades Sukariyot, that stops a good film being a great one. Vilonzi, as Klausner, and Sarah Adler’s Claudia feel too close to caricature to be taken altogether seriously. But then, there is a very bleak darkness – the bleakness of noir – that preoccupies the last third of the film. Fred Kelemen’s excellent cinematography shapes an appropriate mood, as does Boris Martzinovsky’s score. But there is a missing ingredient, a certain attitude, that the film doesn’t quite carry. Rather, there is plenty of chutzpah (there’s a scene, filmed on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street, that made me gasp. Literally). Actually, now I come to think of it, it may very well be a good thing we don’t really get film noir in these parts. We admire audacity too much for our own good.
Directed by Joseph Pitchadze, Written by Joseph Pitchadze and Dov Steuer
Starring Makram Khoury, Shmuel Vilozny, Moni Moshonov, Ezra Kafri, Sarah Adelr, Menashe Noy, Michael Sarne
132 mins, Hebrew/Arabic/English/Russian/French w. Hebrew and English subtitles