Et voilà! Here’s already your first masterpiece alert on the second day of the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Premiering in competition, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s fourth feature AHED’S KNEE is a work of great eloquence, style and breathtaking fury that takes the country’s nationalistic administration to task and asks uncomfortable questions of its people. Building on the promise of Lapid’s previous films, it showcases a writer/director at the height of his prowess. You could practically hear the creative juice rushing through every frame. Wowed.
The film begins with a bang. A protracted, ear-splitting noise gradually reveals itself to be the sound of a motorcycle dashing through traffic in pouring rain. The camera cuts from the overcast sky to an anonymous cityscape then to a sprawling bird’s-eye view of the congested highway in quick, dazzling succession, teasing the magnificent camerawork to come. The rider goes on an audition for the role of Ahed Tamimi, real-life Palestinian activist imprisoned for having slapped an Israeli soldier. We also learn about a controversial tweet sent by an Israeli politician after the slapping incident, saying Tamimi should have been shot for the act, at least in her knee.
Filled with doubt while casting this fictional, politically touchy film “The Knee of Ahed Tamimi”, the director Y (portrayed with an abundance of charisma and swag by Avshalom Pollak) decides to take a break and attend a screening of his previous film at a public library in the desert town of Arava. There he meets young, wide-eyed library director Yahalom (Nur Fibak) and, during the course of the day, strikes up a curious relationship with her that would lead to some extreme places.
What people should know about AHED’S KNEE first is that it’s a very confrontational film, full of ideas, convictions, anger and would probably offend many different sensitivities. Towards the end, after Y has shared his most painful, deeply buried secret, he goes on such fevered, no-holds-barred rants against his own people and government it leaves not just him physically drained, you feel overwhelmed as a viewer as well. And while few of us would be even remotely qualified to comment on something as complex and emotionally fraught as Middle East politics, it’s hard to deny that Y’s reflections pour from a thoughtful, heartfelt place. Especially in a world where liberal values are under attack and an authoritarian alternative is on the rise, the urgency in his words burns.
The quality of Lapid’s writing is even more impressive when he’s telling you more than what’s being said. The first encounter of Y and Yahalom is ostensibly an extended flirt between two stranger who feel a connection to each other. But the free-flowing conversation carefully sets up a world-traveling, rule-breaking artist on the one hand and an aspiring home-grown public official on the other. The difference in their background, experience and beliefs despite the common Israeli bond is beautifully marked through authentically meandering talks across a variety of topics. This contrast gives essential context to questions of acquiescence dealt with in the third act.
In the third act, Y tells a story about his time in the military, when an abusive sergeant devised a prank to frighten the rookie on the team. The victim was messed up as planned, the abuser got his kick, thanks to the silent observer Y who did nothing to intervene. The story succinctly sums up the dynamics of authoritarian rule and becomes all the more fascinating once Yahalom challenges the role of Y in it. To understand where Israel is, it seems to suggest, there’s no escaping the trauma of its past.
On top of the thought-provoking political and intellectual discourse it offers, AHED’S KNEE is also just a wild, madly unpredictable cinematic experience. Lapid moves the narrative along with tremendous spontaneity, often letting random visual cues and musical interludes dictate the film’s tone and beat. In such seemingly insubstantial scenes, the camera would swoosh, shake and soar as if completely out of control. The feeling of absolute freedom it evokes is immediate, visceral and moving – in every sense of the word. We all had moments when we saw something in our formative years and had to ask “What was that?” “They could do that?”, whether it was me back then watching my first Aronofsky or Nolan, or I’m sure those before me being struck by their first Kubrick or Polanski. And I’d like to imagine the groundbreaking forms of expression employed in this film will hit and inspire a new generation of cinephiles in a similar way. We probably also need to start paying attention to what cinematographer Shai Goldman does from now on. Amazing work.
It’s satisfying to follow a filmmaker’s growth through the years. From POLICEMAN, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, to the Berlinale-winning SYNONYMS, Lapid has continually shown talent as a storyteller and visual artist. And now with AHED’S KNEE, he’s made not just his most pointedly political film to date, but also the most narratively and formally daring one. It’s not for everybody and I love it all the more for that.