Sweaty, stressed out and stuck in Tel Aviv

Like insects stuck to flypaper, the stressed urban denizens in “Alila” kvetch and kick and go nowhere.

There is scarcely a moment in Amos Gitai’s stifling ensemble drama that doesn’t reek of impotence and frustration. The trouble with “Alila” isn’t its tone, however, but its plot.

Or rather the lack of one. The veteran Israeli director populates a sun-baked, rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood with an assortment of unusual working-class characters only to let them flail in place for two hours.

It’s one thing when people don’t change or grow in the course of a movie. But when they can’t communicate, and rehash the same ground repeatedly, impatience — if not boredom — is sure to follow.

“Alila” screens four times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The most intriguing characters, if only because they express their vigor most graphically, are the lean, mean Gabi and her older married lover, Hezi. Attractive Ashkenazis who presumably frequent nicer parts of town, they rendezvous at a small apartment Hezi rents in a downscale neighborhood where it’s unlikely they’ll run into anybody they know.

For Gabi, their relationship is as much about power as sex. But she’s playing a dangerous game, for Hezi is nothing if not a control freak.

Since no one believes in privacy in this building — a source of continual annoyance to Hezi, who wants to conduct his affair in total secrecy — Gabi soon encounters the other tenants. There’s the Holocaust survivor with the Filipino housemaid and a shrill woman with big hair and a hatred for Arabs.

Gabi’s friend Mali, meanwhile, has shacked up with a handsome young hustler following her divorce from the shlemiel contractor Ezra. But Ezra’s still not over her, and sleeps in his van in front of her place every night.

As it happens, Ezra and his crew of illegal Chinese workers are in the middle of a noisy construction project at the very building where Gabi and Hezi are enacting their passion play amidst all those quirky neighbors.

Most filmmakers would ratchet up all this amoral floundering on the mean streets with handheld cinematography and a hip-hop soundtrack. Gitai opts instead for long takes and a passive camera, an approach that, initially at least, lends Gabi’s scenes a riveting air of unpredictability.

Once it becomes clear that neither Gabi nor anyone else is going anywhere, we see that Gitai’s technique is really intended to emphasize their inability to escape their circumstances.

As the tension dissipates, the claustrophobia escalates. Plenty of entertaining movies have been made about inertia, but this isn’t one of them.

“Alila” does contain some superficial commentary on foreign workers, the changing ethnicity of Tel Aviv and the arrogance of the police and military. It’s hardly enough to offset the contrived subplots that don’t pay off and the cringe-inducing performances of some of the supporting players.

Although Gitai proffers some signs in the last reel that one or two of his characters are getting unstuck, I was unconvinced. Not many insects escape flypaper.

“Alila” screens at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 27, at the Castro Theatre; S.F.; 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1, at the Century Cinema 16, Mountain View; 8:45 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, at Wheeler Auditorium in Berkeley, and 8:45 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. Tickets: $9-$11. (925) 275-9490, or www.sfjff.org.


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.