The filmmakers on the set of Gett. Photo by Amit Berlowitz

The filmmakers on the set of ‘Gett.’ Photo by Amit Berlowitz

It’s no small feat to create an intense drama in one room for the duration of a feature length film. But Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem stands as one of the best examples of such a drama that you will ever see (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem shows how to make a powerful, resonant drama using one setting — a film review). In the film, the brother and sister directing and writing duo Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz present a married couple in Israel who have arrived at such an impasse they can no longer communicate. The wife, Viviane, played by Ronit — who is also a major acting force in Israel, wants a divorce, but the husband (Simon Abkarian) does not. Since he is orthodox, they need to address this before a rabbinical court of three rabbis. In Israel, for devout marriages, the only way out is a ceremony called a gett. These getts have long been secretive affairs that happen behind closed doors where wives are treated as property of the husband. If the woman wants a divorce but the husband does not, the rabbis cannot grant the gett, which makes for a Kafkaesque version of divorce proceedings.

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If you have never heard about such a thing, it’s only because the subject has been taboo in Israel. Speaking via phone from Los Angeles, the brother of the filmmaking team notes that there would have been no way he and his sister could have made this movie 10 years ago, when they began a trilogy of movies in tribute to their mother. The first film, 2004’s To Take a Wifewas more autobiographical, he notes. In it, Viviane is a young woman who only dreams of divorce while trying to raise three children with an unloving husband who married her for tradition’s sake. The second film, 2008’s 7 Days follows the same family, as its familiar loveless conflict continues during the seven days of shiva after the death of a loved one. With Gett, however, they decided to write Viviane a different ending. “We call it the imaginary biography of her in the sense of what would have happened if a woman like our mother would have gone for a divorce trial in Israel,” says Elkabetz.

In their film, as noted in the still image of trailer at the end of this article, the trial lasts a long time. Still, there have been divorce trials in rabbinical courts that have lasted as much as 20 years, notes the filmmaker. Elkabetz understands reality can be stranger than fiction, so to allow the film to have more of an impact, he and his sister tried not to make their movie as extreme.ronit “One of our initial thoughts was that we were not going to take the worst case because there are horrible cases. We tried to take cases where there is no violence, there is no physical abuse. The kids are grown. Everybody left home. She’s an independent woman. She has her own salary. She wants only one thing. She just wants to be free, and we took this case and said, What happens if we put this case in the Israeli law system? Let’s see how the Israeli law system copes with that one woman who wants to be free and wants to get a divorce where the husband says, no.”

The film has since become a phenomena in the sibling’s country. It opened in Israel at the end of September 2014, and it’s still in theaters. The co-director admits that he and his sister never saw this interest coming. “It became like a political movement,” he says. “It was beautifully accepted, and it was on the news everyday in every media, in the late edition, in the state papers and on the blogs and on the Internet. The film was endorsed by ministers, by parliament members, and the most amazing thing that happened was that the chief rabbi from Israel was repeatedly asked, ‘Have you seen, Gett? Have you seen, Gett?’ His response was always, ‘I never went to the cinema, and I don’t go to the cinema, so I didn’t see Gett.’ And he was repeatedly asked and asked, and he eventually came back … and he said, ‘Listen, we have decided to screen Gett in the annual rabbinical convention this year.'”

The debate in Israel has been intense to change matters. The result of that screening can be read in this short article: “Rabbis cry gewalt after watching Israeli film ‘Gett.'” To sum it up, the rabbis at least acknowledged they have an image problem on their hands. Elkabetz says since no cameras have ever been allowed to document a gett, and they are not open to the public, he and his sister interviewed people who have been through one. But the drama in their film is a fiction based on characters they have followed for 10 years.

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Some may wonder how can a nearly two-hour film in one room, with nearly the same characters, ever offer a tightly paced drama. “I don’t want to be pretentious and say we always know what we are doing,” offers Elkabetz. “I don’t want to say I have a key to make it happen, but we knew that the story is very radical, and we knew that we are facing a sort of a mission to make it happen from second to second.”

He notes that dialogue was important but not so much what is said as what the characters do not say. “We were very attentive to what is happening around us on the set and in the script,” he says. “We were trying to listen very carefully to what the characters are saying, but even more to what they’re not saying because our main character doesn’t talk in this film.”

Visual presentation was also important. As these characters are trying to defend different points of view, the filmmakers came to a smart decision in how to present them visually in the space. “Our first important decision was not to take a master shot in this film,” reveals Elkabetz. “We didn’t take a director’s shot, which describes the whole picture. We said we’re only going to place the camera where the characters are sitting, meaning we’re only going to see what somebody sees, so the whole film is basically shot from the different points of views from the characters in the court, meaning you’reElisha always in a subjective place and you change your stance from one minute to another or one second to another, and by that we hope that we will have the ability to stretch the room because the minute you change the point of view, you change your opinion, and we change the whole atmosphere, and we change the whole essence of one moment, adding to it many different complexities and adding a sort of tension. The tension between the characters could be transferred from what they see and how we think they are interpreting what they are experiencing.”

The key to capturing the drama of varying perspectives, especially those in an intimate life together like a marriage, is subjectivity, not objectivity. “We hope by eliminating objectivity, we create a more truthful, a more suspenseful moment for each one of the characters and eventually for the whole situation,” notes Elkabetz.

The filmmaker adds that he and his sister had doubts they could pull this off, but they allowed that to challenge them. “We went into this film with a lot of good fear, I would say, because we had all these questions like would it be possible to stay in this room for an hour and a half and could we hold the story and still engage people, and if they’re not engaged, we can’t make them think about it.”

He again brings up the importance of subjectivity, not only in the characters of the film, but also acknowledging that every audience member in a movie house brings their own baggage to Gett 2a film. There is always a subjective view outside, looking in. “We can’t make them be involved,” says Elkabetz of the audience. “We want people to be intellectual about it, and we want people to be emotional about it. We want the cinema to turn into a court where each one of the spectators that are coming to the cinema are taking a stand from a very internal point of view, so in general that was our idea for the shoot.”

Putting the film together in editing was another element. Early in the shooting process, the sibling filmmakers knew they had to test out their approach in the editing room. “What we did was we shot three days in the manner that we wanted to shoot, and we went into the editing room, and we edited one scene to see if the method of shooting that we want to do is working, and we were very pleased with what we saw. We didn’t understand completely what we saw, but it worked. It was suspenseful, and it was personal, and it was global, and it was public.”

In the end, they also had an array of perspectives to put together in a certain way, which was its own challenge. “We shot over 110 hours, and the film has over 1,300 cuts,” he says. “Just in the span of over seven days we shot 40 hours, and we have 60 cuts in the film, so there is this thing that we had to discover ever day when we came to the set and we really tried to pay attention to. I mean, we loved what we saw, and we hoped that it would work as a whole, also. I think it’s hard for every filmmaker. You have an idea, but the final results is almost a mystery, so combining everything together to see how it works as a whole is something that nobody has the answers for, of course. If we did, all films would be amazing and great, but the question is investigating the moment and pinpointing the crucial moments for certain circumstances.”

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Even when watching this film alone at home, in preparation for an introduction of the movie during the Miami Jewish Film Festival, this writer could tell there were moments that the subjectivity of the audience had been so powerfully harnessed, that you could feel the moments when the audience might react to the images. Elkabetz admits he and his sister knew they created a potent film, but they could have never anticipated the reaction they witnessed at Cannes when the film premiered at the director’s fortnight. He says people were shouting at the screen. “In the moment when they are asking Elisha, ‘Are you going to give her a divorce?’ not only in the end, but throughout the film, people are saying, ‘Yeah, give it to her, give it to her!’”

As Gett went on a tour of film festivals, Elkabetz witnessed an array of reactions at different points of the movie. “People are laughing and people are reacting in various different moments,” he says. “For me, the only experience that is like it is a moment when I was a kid, when I used to go to the cinema with my dad, and people were very noisy. They speak to the screen, they speak to the characters, and it’s an experience. In my other film, 7 Days, people laughed a lot, but this film, there is something else that makes the audience really active, in many ways, so throughout the film, there’s a lot of clapping, there’s a lot of laughing. We expected the reaction, but we didn’t know the reaction was going to be … so intense.”

*  *  *

You can read more of my interview with Shlomi Elkabetz in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:

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Hans Morgenstern

Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Images in this article are all courtesy of Music Box Films, except where noted.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

gett_ver2In their new film, the Israeli sibling writer/directors Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, pull a sort of magic trick in cinema. Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem closes out a trilogy of films following the same characters over a period of 10 years. But this film stands on its own for all the drama and tension created in one room. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, the sibling team of directors from Israel also wrote the script together and Ronit, a notable actress from Israel, plays the lead, as she did in the previous two films of this trilogy, To Take a Wife (2004) and 7 Days (2008). In Gett, she once again plays the role of Viviane Amsalem, who in the previous films endured the tension of a loveless marriage, and now finally takes concrete steps toward divorce. However, in the religious state of Israel, a divorce — or a “gett” in Hebrew — must be agreed upon by the husband, as tradition holds that a wife is the property of the husband, and her devout husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) has refused to grant her the divorce. With this imbalance of power, a gett stands more as a ceremonial affair rather than a real trial. It is even adjudicated by a court of three rabbis. The directors focus on this imbalance of power and make it the crux of the film’s drama to powerful effect.

The movie runs 115 minutes and the drama unfolds almost exclusively in the rabbinical courtroom. The only other setting is the anteroom where some small but important exchanges also happen between characters. But the directors do not waste a second in this movie. There is all kinds of tension between all of the movie’s characters, be it the husband and wife, Viviane and her lawyer (Menashe Noy) —  who is implied early on to have an affectionate relationship with his client — and everyone between the varied trio of rabbis who try to sit in judgment but come to empathize with Viviane as the trial drags on (I won’t spoil its length).

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Viviane has no complaint about her husband except that she does not love him. This is not a woman complaining that her husband beats her or cheats on her, which heightens the stakes in an interesting way, making Elisha’s denial for divorce all the more disturbing. This becomes a battle of wills for something bigger than personal differences, which is hard to deny between these two who yell at one other almost every time they have an exchange in the film. You get a picture of a marriage long frayed, although Elisha is not presented as a mere plot device; he is a man with a conflicting and powerful array of feelings. There’s anger, but there’s a devoted sense to tradition favoring patriarchy. In that sense, the film calls attention to the problem of tradition as adapted for civil matters, especially the absence of a woman’s voice in tradition, making the film a powerful feminist commentary on a patriarchal system.

On another level, Gett presents a tightly knotted drama where the viewer is also forced to consider perceptions and the impossibility of presenting a person to another person that is fair to that person being held up for scrutiny. This is much more than he-said/she-said argument that drives the film’s tension. The writing by the two directors shows a brilliant capacity to create drama by withholding information. Too often, Hollywood screenwriters concern themselves with characters explaining how they feel, what they will do, that it saps the drama of mystery, but Gett shows how valuable mystery is to drama, as the directors never bog down the pace of their movie to explain the differences among the characters. Instead, they allow them to gradually reveal their issues through action.

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There are also a great, varied array of witnesses who offer their own perspectives, some of whom gradually reveal flaws about themselves as they try to judge the couple. All of them, down to the court aide (Gabi Amrani) are efficiently drawn characters, carrying heavy burdens of perspective. It also comes across in the creative framing and the varied angles the directors find when presenting these various characters, reflective of new points of view. Gett is a very deliberately crafted film that never feels overcooked. By turns hilarious and disturbing, Gett stands as one of the most remarkable films I saw last year. To create suspense in such a simple, enthralling way while making such a strong statement for women’s rights will surely blow many viewers’ minds.

Hans Morgenstern

Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem runs 115 minutes, is in Hebrew and French with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing really offensive in its material, except some raised voices, maybe). It opens Friday, Feb. 27 in the South Florida area at O Cinema Miami Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which has also invited noted film scholar and author Annette Insdorf to introduce the film during its 6:30 p.m. screening, on Saturday, Feb. 28. It opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13 and is scheduled to open in many more through April. To find theater listings, click “theaters” after jumping through this link. Music Box films provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review, and I introduced this film at one of its screenings during the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

You can also read an interview I conducted with Shlomi Elkabetz, which was just posted by the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist by jumping through the blog’s logo below. He talks about pulling back the curtain of these secret ceremonial divorce trials and the surprising response the film has received in his country and around the world:

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(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

stacks_image_236While many Israeli film exports are straightforward or dramatic movies, Zero Motivation offers a breath of fresh air with a funny yet critical look at the role of women in the military. In a series of stories featuring women serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the film weaves different vignettes through an episodic narrative that at times is pure hilarity and at others shifts to insightful criticism with dark undertones. The film received an award from the 13th Annual Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize, given to a female writer or director with a distinctive voice. Zero Motivation is the debut feature film from writer-director Talya Lavie who served in the IDF as a secretary on a base.

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In Zero Motivation, Lavie uses a critical inward-looking gaze at her own homeland with a focus on one of the strongest institutions of Israel: its military. Often touted as an achievement in gender equality, Lavie’s portrayal of the IDF is far from the international perception of the Israeli military as a model for gender equality. The machine, as presented by Lavie’s lens, is filled with the usual patriarchal practices you would expect in that setting: harassment, a lack of representation at the top and almost no engagement in combat. The film presents a group of women serving in the IDF — all of them quite different but all women — relegated to a highly bureaucratic human resources office characterized by a typical gendered division of labor. Not only does the office concern itself with having paper backups of leaves by soldiers, it also shreds papers and serves coffee and drinks to other officers.

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Early in the film we meet Daffi (Nelly Tagar), a young and naïve soldier who is also the “Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Paper and Shredding.” Her storyline involves her quest to be transferred to a Tel Aviv station. In Daffi’s mind, the mindless paper tasks would be the same at any station, but at least Tel Aviv offers the glamour of the big city. Daffi’s good friend Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is focused on even smaller goals, her one quest at the office is to beat a Minesweeper record on the office’s outdated computer. Zohar’s other main priority is to lose her virginity, which is one of the standout chapters of the film. Zohar finds a soldier who seems interested, only to quickly learn that even for the seemingly polite young man, being a soldier means being entitled over the women around him. These are well-drawn characters that speak to the overall disconnectedness between the institution and its female population.

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With her comic storytelling, Lavie skillfully reveals the contradictions in the system of mandatory conscription in the IDF for women, while the status of women within the organization remains systematically constrained. On the one hand, including women in the IDF is an important step towards equality, but the governance of the organization has relegated women to secretaries far removed from the realities of combat. In a poignant and clever montage, two of the characters walk around the station while in the background another female soldier posts reminders of all the historic military engagements of the IDF and their significance. The message and design of these posters is quite institutional and shows the distance between that reality and the contained environment in the military stations.

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We have no clear sense of why each of the characters made it to service but all have hopes and dreams that, however small or funny it might seem to the audience, are upended via their military service. Even the one woman in this institution who holds genuine aspirations to grow within the IDF fumbles her chances. Rama (Shani Klein), the female officer in charge of this group of misfits, cannot seem to access the “good old boys network,” as her group of slackers sabotage her in one instance after another.

All the stories in Zero Motivation speak to the uncomfortable relationship between Israel’s Western aspirations and its embedded traditional structure. While the film is critical with an undercurrent of dark humor, it does not settle any of the issues it raises. It will certainly be the opening for many conversations that will be plagued with more questions than answers.

Ana Morgenstern

Zero Motivation runs 100 minutes, is in Hebrew with English Subtitles and is unrated (there’s cursing, violence, nudity and sexual situations). The film will premiere in Miami at the Miami Jewish Film Festival where I have been asked to introduce it on Sunday, January 25 at 6 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores. It is being distributed by Zeitgesit Films to theaters and has begun a theaterical run that continues expanding. For other screening dates and times around the country visit the film’s official website here.

Update: Zero Motivation opens for a brief three-day run at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus on Friday, Feb. 13.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2-19-14-Omar posterToday, the Palestinian/Israeli actors Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany will make a big public appearance in Miami. They are being hosted by the Coral Gables Art Cinema for the local premier of Omar, the second foreign-language film nominated for an Oscar by Hany Abu-Assad. It’s a powerful film that paints a human picture of the struggles of young Palestinians fighting occupation in the West Bank but also dealing with youthful emotions and love.

There are some intense chase scenes in the film that feature Bakri climbing walls and cutting through an array of obstacles. But also an impressive set-piece in the wall that divides Omar, the character he plays, and his love interest Nadia, played by Lubany. We spoke via phone yesterday. “I did the majority of my stunts,” Bakri said. “The only thing I didn’t do was scaling the wall. We had a circus guy for that. But then there’s another crazy jump that Omar does in the movie that the producers didn’t let me do because if I hurt myself that would have stopped the shooting, so that jump was done by another stunt double.”

You’ll know what he’s talking about when you see the  movie. Though he may look like a Parkour expert in some of the scenes, he downplays his talents. “I had a very intense working out schedule before, for like a month and a half, running, working out,” he explained. “I had a very good personal trainer, but as far as Parkour, I didn’t do that. We left that for the circus guy, to climb the wall. It’s really a huge wall. It’s almost impossible for anyone not involved in the circus or the stunt life to do it.”

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Lubany said she comes from a long line of Palestinians. “I’m Palestinian-Israeli,” she said. “I was born in Israel but my great, great, great grandfather he was there much longer, and then the Israelis came. I mean, I am Palestinian, but I was born in Israel.”

She said she will be ready for a lively discussion after the screening of Omar and hopes viewers arrive with an open mind to the Palestinian perspective. She recalls a screening in Tel Aviv where she dealt with both open-minded viewers and some who were … not so much. “When the movie was over, they asked some questions,” she said, “and I saw that some people really were open-minded and really tried to see the movie in other perspective than themselves, and others didn’t like it at all because they didn’t want to see the ugly truth, so I think that we really want them to come in, sit down and be objective and just look at some people’s life in [the city of] Nablus without even thinking whether they’re Palestinian, whatever their religion or where they live in, just look at them what they’re going through, so yeah.”

To read more of my interview with these two actors, including their reaction to the Oscar nomination, jump through the logo of the art and culture blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times”:

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Hans Morgenstern

Omar premieres Friday, Feb. 21, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. A Q&A with the actors will follow the film at 7 p.m., and there will be an open bar and Middle Eastern food served at a reception after the screening.(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The-Attack_Poster_FINAL-708x1024An amazingly ambitious film, the Attack, reaches for a larger statement beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an intriguing, multi-layered story concerned with identity on a personal level. It seems a challenge to transcend a historic conflict by focusing on a private relationship, but by sticking with close human relations and using an intimate style of shooting, somehow director Ziad Doueiri succeeds. Though set against a backdrop of more than 2,000 years of conflict and the baggage that comes with that an important statement lies at the heart of the story: whether anyone can know another person wholly, even if they are their most intimate partner.

Based on Yasmina Khadra’s award-winning best-selling novel, the film deals with a Palestinian doctor, Amin (Ali Suliman), who has comfortably integrated in Tel-Aviv with a Christian Arab wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem). However, his world is up-ended when his wife is implicated in a suicide bombing that kills 19 people, including 11 children. Beyond the horrors of this scenario, the film follows this man’s quest for the truth while illustrating how ultimately difficult it is to know anyone.

Doueiri was Quentin Tarantino’s first assistant cameraman from Reservoir Dogs into Jackie Brown, and he proves that he learned some lessons from this master filmmaker from a standpoint of subtle, moody suspense. But, ultimately, it’s his deeper understanding of the conflict he grew up with that informs his film.Siham-and-Amin-Embrace-1024x682 It’s unfortunate that in May, the League of Arab States asked all of its 22 member nations to boycott the film, including the director’s home country of Lebanon. In shooting part of the movie in Israel, he had violated a decades-old Lebanese rule prohibiting citizens from working there. But, the director has noted, that is not the real reason why the Attack was banned, but because his film fails to demonize Israel, which goes against the propaganda he grew up with as a child in Lebanon.

What’s so powerful about this film is that there is no room for demons on either side when such a complex relationship lies at the heart of the movie. The film efficiently establishes this relationship within its first few minutes. Siham tells Amin that every day he leaves her a small piece of her dies. Amin-at-Hospital-1024x682It’s a heavy statement that is meant to inform this relationship where this career-driven man seems to have put work ahead of her. He is off to accept an award from the Israeli medical community. During an introductory speech Siham calls him, and he must abruptly cut the call short. As he rises to visit the stage, a female colleague, Kim (Evgenia Dodena), brushes his face rather intimately to congratulate him. The next day he is having lunch with Kim and other doctors when a distant explosion rattles the building.

Via brief scenes, the suspicion that descends on Amin grows more and more suffocating. On top of dealing with the trauma of identifying Siham’s body, he becomes the target of harsh police interrogation tactics and vengeful vandals. Halfway through the film, he decides to visit Siham’s family in the city of Nablus in the West Bank. Doueiri does a great job presenting the culture shock, from the taxi driver who insists they listen to a sheikh’s hateful speech to an even more shocking revelation on how news of Siham’s implication in the bombing is regarded by those living in the city.

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The director uses tight shots on the actor’s face and a very modern electronic ambient music coupled with shivering strings by Éric Neveux to enhance the contemplative, quiet suffering of Amin. Forgiving a couple of heavy-handed melodramatic moments, for the most part, Doueiri sticks to a moody work, using lots of shadow and quiet moments that reveal a temperance the film fares better to stick with. Amin wanders in the middle of two worlds, more alone than ever. The more he learns, the more lonely he seems. The deeply entrenched divides between these people is powerfully revealed through a most intimate search for truth that ends on a rather wry personal note the speaks to some rather heart-breaking possibilities. It’s quite a journey to take whether you are Arab, Jew or other.

Hans Morgenstern

The Attack is rated R, runs 102 min., and is in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Friday, June 28, at the following theaters:

Miami:  The Tower Theater, Intracoastal Mall
Fort Lauderdale: Sunrise 11
Boca Raton/West Palm Beach: Regal Delray 18, Movies at Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Frank Theaters Delray, Living Room Cinemas, Boca, Regal Shadowood
Fort Myers: Regal Bell Tower

The studio provided me with a preview screener on-line for the purposes of introducing and discussing the film at O Cinema as part of its Gathr Preview screenings, back in early June. More information on Gathr in Miami can be found here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)