Recently we attended a screening of the Israeli movie “Avanti Popolo”. It was the 30th anniversary of the movie, which first came out in November 1986. The movie, which was originally shot using 16mm film, was digitally restored. And luckily so… Celluloid isn’t the most durable media for storing masterpieces. And yes, it is an Israeli masterpiece.

I have seen the movie shortly after it came out, and was quite impressed. But watching it 30yrs later was even more impressive. I suppose that’s what makes it a masterpiece – the fact that it only improves with time. We can only regret that its creator – Rafi Bukai – passed away prematurely.avanti-popolo

Avanti Popolo started off as Bukai’s student graduation project. It was produced on an extremely low budget (an estimated $60K) and with very basic means. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly made. The script, the acting and the photography were nothing short of a breakthrough in Israeli film making at the time.

With the original copies available only on celluloid, it was only a matter of time before the movie would be lost forever. Fortunately, The digital restoration was initiated by the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Israeli Film Archive, with financial support from multiple foundations. The results are a technical miracle – the movie looked brand new, as if it was released yesterday. It is now available in digital format, and can be handed down to future generations of both movie makers and goers.

So, what impressed me about the movie – both then and now?

I believe that the cornerstone of any good movie is the script. You can cast great actors and add amazing special effects – but if the “story” isn’t good, neither will the movie be. Avanti Popolo’s script is full of humor, irony and surprises. Plus, it delivers a genuine humanistic message:  everybody is human – enemies too.

I don’t know if you plan to watch the movie, so I will minimize the number of spoilers. But even if you knew the complete plot, you would still enjoy deciphering the symbolic meanings hidden in many of the scenes.

Rafi Bukai must have been a great fan of “brain teasers”. Many of the choices made in the script are full of surprises. It begins with choosing two Egyptian soldiers as the main characters – the “heroes” of the story. Why is that surprising? Because the movie is set on the last day of the Six-Days War, where conventional wisdom had Israel (playing the role of “David”) defending itself against aggression from multiple Arab nations lead by Egypt (playing the role of “Goliath”). Just about every movie made on the Six-Day War had depicted Israelis as its heroes, and Arabs as its villains.

Bukai doesn’t rewrite history – the war is indeed won by Israel, and the Egyptians soldiers are fleeing the battle field. However, Avanti Popolo focuses on the fleeing soldiers, and we learn about their lives, their dreams and the circumstances that threw them into this quagmire.  We are not shown “enemy soldiers” who have luckily been defeated. We are introduced to two human beings, who were caught up in circumstances beyond their control, and are simply trying to get back home.

It is difficult not to empathize with these two Egyptian soldiers. You, as the audience, can’t help but join their journey back home. You want them to succeed and return to their former civilian lives. But then – Israeli soldiers show up, and become the “obstacle” that stands in the way of our heroes’ journey. That’s where the movie grabs you: you find yourself empathizing with the “enemy”, and through that alternate point of view you realize: they too are “just people”.

The “trading places” theme runs deep throughout the movie. One of its highlights is the Shylock monologue from Shakespeare’s  The Merchant of Venice. The timeless monologue, originally put by Shakespeare in the mouth of a persecuted  Jew,  is recited in the movie by one of the Egyptian soldiers… The words “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” carry a whole new meaning.

I promised to minimize the spoilers, so I won’t describe any more details. I’ll just say that if you look for a funny, touching and thought provoking movie that sheds a slightly different light on the Israeli-Arab conflict – Avanti Popolo is it.

Other than the cinematic qualities, Avanti Popolo clearly delivers a political message, which was quite radical at the time. It plays with the classical roles of “good guys” and “bad guys” previously used in Israeli cinema when it comes to depicting Jews and Arabs in a conflict. No, it doesn’t go as far as depicting the Israelis as “bad” and the Arabs as “good”… But it certainly encourages you to pause and rethink the whole notion of “good vs. bad” when it comes to the conflict.

Avanti Popolo was created shortly after the First Lebanon war in 1982. The conflict started off as a defensive action against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who has been firing missiles at Israel from its entrenched positions in southern Lebanon. However, it soon evolved into a full-scale war, driven by a grandiose plan to change the regime in Lebanon. The plan failed miserably, and in its aftermath, Israel found itself entangled in its own version of the Vietnam War. The 1982 war was described as a “War of Choice” by Prime Minister Menahem Begin – unlike all previous wars, which were perceived as dire necessities. For many Israelis that war shattered the belief that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) engage in military action only when it is forced to defend Israel. The “good guys” were no longer impeccably good… I am guessing the storyline of Avanti Popolo probably developed against this backdrop.

OK, enough with the political banter… The bottom line is that it is a good movie, and it represents a major milestone in the evolution of Israeli cinema. So if you have a chance – go see it!

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