Friday 19 June 2020

Conservation: "The Day After I'm Gone"

The Israeli drama The Day After I'm Gone puts forward a strong contender for the most leftfield location of any 2020 release: a Tel Aviv safari park. For a while, writer-director Nimrod Antal's feature debut looks to be taking the scenic route, circling and thereby avoiding its central issue in the company of a character doing likewise. It's anchored by a sturdy performance from Menashe Noy, an actor who resembles Al Pacino if Pacino were an introvert, here cast as Yoram, a gruff, closed-off vet, brilliant (indeed, a lifesaver) in the emotionless, antiseptic space of the operating theatre, yet hopeless when it comes to connecting with any other creature. (You wonder to what degree local viewers will take him as representative of the Israeli male species.) This matters, because Yoram is raising a college-age daughter, Roni (Zohar Meidan), whose behaviour has started to veer towards the erratic: she comes back to the home the pair share in the early hours, when she comes back at all. Although it unfolds in a different milieu, this relationship isn't so far removed from that encountered in last year's Eighth Grade, and some real-life asymmetrical households besides. With the mother-wife who might translate or otherwise mediate between these two lost to illness, the pair have been left at odds, or at best in a state of mutual indifference - the extent of which is eventually revealed when the police show up one night to inform an oblivious Yoram that his child has attempted suicide under his own roof.

What follows, after Roni is discharged from hospital and father and daughter make an agonisingly silent journey home, is a film about the work required to repair pumped stomachs, slashed wrists, broken bonds. This is not as easy as it would be in any comparable American drama. Eldar is acutely aware of the distance between Yoram and Roni, a distance that possibly explains why dad can't ask daughter what she wants and needs without bellowing: here is a man with not much give in him. (When Roni asks what would have happened if she hadn't been rescued, Yoram gives a witheringly rational response that sounds more like sarcasm than sympathy.) At this point, the film takes its most American turn, redirecting father and daughter outwards on a road trip to see mum's grave and visit relatives in the Occupied Territories. Being in the car forces the pair to spend time together; it also obliges Yoram to adopt a less rigid stance than we've seen him do in the confines of the city. Here, The Day After I'm Gone begins to appear a little more conventional than a film that opens with leopard brain surgery would suggest, though there are surprises (like the revelation of Yoram's career as a reality-TV star) and some intriguing local specifics.

For starters, extending the focus beyond this one household might lead us to wonder whether being set in one's ways, refusing to budge an inch, isn't a national characteristic that's become the source of a national crisis. At the relatives' house, passing talk of the BDS boycott and a nightmare Yoram has involving a monument to a fallen soldier provide their own markers that this isn't the healthiest set of structures for anybody to be existing in. Equally, however, I think you could just admire Noy's skilful, rigorously unsentimental performance, giving the barest minimum scene by scene to camera and co-stars, yet gradually opening up a crack in the brick wall Yoram has constructed around himself, admitting not just the reality of this situation but his own liability in it, his own frailty. The film's finale, which really does come to seem like a small, quiet everyday miracle, rests on no more than a slight shift in mood, in a man as in a room - an upturning of a generally downturned mouth that signals things may well be better from now on, if not entirely A-OK. The work goes on, and has to go on. Here is a film that feels like the first, carefully weighted words in a conversation; as the sad passing of the young Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput at the weekend underlined, that conversation is often no less than a matter of life and death.

The Day After I'm Gone is now streaming on MUBI UK.

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