Monday, April 2, 2018

SHELTER: Eran Riklis' semi-thriller about the Middle-East, world politics and betrayal

As a longtime fan of the work of Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (TrustMovies interviewed him back in 2009), I'm a bit perplexed by his latest movie, SHELTER.

In it, a semi-retired female Israeli Mossad agent is called back into service in order to protect a Lebanese double agent who has turned from Hezbollah to the side of Israel and is currently being hidden in a safe house Germany, recovering from plastic surgery which has reconfigured her face and will help with her new identity.

So far so good -- if a little standard in its premise and plotting. In the previous films of Mr. Riklis (who is pictured at left) -- from The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree to The Human Resources Manager -- this director and sometimes writer has managed to take complicated subjects and from them weave tapestries of drama, humor and most especially a full range of human behavior that does justice to some difficult, often seemingly insoluble situations. Yet in Shelter, he has simplified much of what we see and hear down to the level of the simple-minded.

His movie does hold our attention, thanks in good part to the appealing performances of its two leads: Neta Riskin (above, left) as the Mossad agent and Golshifteh Farahani (above, right) as the Lebanese woman. Both actresses are talented, beautiful and charismatic (each in her own very different manner), and Riklis, as screenwriter, initially provides enough spy-movie type situations to keep us properly guessing as to who's good, who's bad and what the hell is going on.

Granted all this does seems a little second-, if not third-hand. We've seen most of it many times previous. But the two woman are worth watching, as are the various supporting-role male actors who surround them (the always excellent Lior Ashkenazi, above, and Doraid Liddawi, below).  Eventually, though, Riklis peppers his movie with so much coincidence, deliberate misdirection, fantasy/nightmares and the like that we begin to wonder if the whole thing isn't taking place in some kind of oddball alternate universe.

The film's last half hour, in particular, is so crammed with plot twists and turns (not to mention a whole bunch of intentionally left-out information) that what happens seems increasingly unlikely, if not outright impossible.

This is too bad because, at heart the movie seems to want to be about betrayal -- by one's peers, one's "employer," one's country. The movie makes its move toward feminism, as well (the women here, along with maybe a single male character, are clearly the only ones to be trusted), but it's mad rush to what can only be construed as a feel-good finale (or maybe wish-fulfillment fantasy) comes off as mostly nutty.

If you're going to pull multiple major "switcheroos" at your conclusion, you damned well better show us at least a little about how you were able to accomplish all this. Perhaps working in the spy thriller genre, which I think may be new to Riklis, has him imagining that this will either not be necessary, or can be delivered completely via shorthand. Sorry, but no.

Still, for awhile, the whole thing works decently enough and the lead performances are very much worth seeing. Ms Farahani (of About Elly, Paterson and many other films) is such a delicate pleasure to view, while Ms Riskin, via her strength and slow-burning vulnerability, offers a fine complement to her co-star. Finally, however, the necessary suspension of disbelief required here would not seem out of place for a sci-fi/fantasy film.

A French/German/Israeli co-production running 93 minutes and released here in the USA via Menemsha Films, Shelter opens this Friday, April 6, in greater Los Angeles area, at a quartet of Laemmle theaters: Ahrya Fine Arts, Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.  Elsewhere? Nothing on the schedule as yet, it seems. But I would expect a DVD to be released eventually, along with some digital streaming availability.

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