Gays and lesbians yearn for thaw in Israeli Antarctica

With a collar-grabbing montage of male nudity and passionate one-night stands, “Antarctica” seemingly declares its intention from the outset to push the bounds of Israeli cinema.

It turns out, though, that writer-director Yair Hochner is more of a romantic than a provocateur. The overriding impression one gets from his ensemble film about oversexed, underloved young gay Israeli men (and one lesbian couple) living in Tel Aviv isn’t rebelliousness or outrage or even activism, but a pervasive wistfulness.

Hochner describes “Antarctica” as a light romantic comedy, but the movie’s palpable air of longing and loneliness (along with the 110-minute running time) gives it a weightier feel. It does provide several chuckles, but at its best the film captures the ecstatic lightheadedness of making a connection that could be the real deal, and the quiet sadness when a potential good thing slips through one’s fingers.

“Antarctica” screens June 28 at the Victoria Theatre as part of Frameline32, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

A roundelay of switching and overlapping partners, “Antarctica” skips between a librarian, a journalist, a boutique manager and a couple of dancers. Hochner stages the great majority of scenes at his characters’ workplaces, illustrating the integration (or, alternatively, the ghettoization) of gays in mainstream Israeli life.

Omer, the librarian, is days away from his 30th birthday but quite a ways from being comfortable in his own skin and fulfilled in his life. His equally muddled younger sister, Shirley, works in a club owned by her former lover (who still carries a torch), but she’s thinking about chucking it all for a trip to Antarctica. For one thing, torches don’t survive very long at the South Pole.

The journalist Ronen (played by square-jawed Guy Zo-Aretz, who had a small role as a commando in “Munich”) tried that gambit, running away to London for several months. But now he’s back in Tel Aviv, as charming and confused as ever, looking for love and working on a story about alien abductees.

His interview with the popular writer Matilda Rose (a bushy-haired Rivka Neuman), who claims to be in touch with extraterrestrials, introduces a welcome bit of absurdity. Even funnier is the regular meeting of a group of kindred spirits (let’s call them Abductees Anonymous) that Ronen attends with his new acquaintance and romantic object, Omer.

The fine actor Noam Huberman supplies the film with its other thread of wackiness by portraying Omer and Shirley’s mother in drag. He also plays a mustachioed older library patron, whom Omer is convinced has a thing for him.

Meanwhile, all the male characters except Omer are having wham-bam affairs at a dizzying pace. It would seem there is no lack of passion and pleasure if you’re a gay man in Tel Aviv, at least in the world of “Antarctica.” What is missing, though, is love and commitment.

There is nothing remotely political about the film — more evidence that Israeli movies now routinely encompass a host of subjects beyond war and the Palestinians — unless one interprets the references to traveling abroad as indicative of a broad dissatisfaction among young Israelis. I think Hochner is simply invoking the universal temptation to blame one’s unhappiness on external circumstances and ignore the sage admonition, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

But if “Antarctica” offers few insights about Israel, it brims with border-crossing truths about lust, jealousy, disappointment and the bravery to chance real intimacy.

“Antarctica” screens 8:30 p.m. June 28 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., S.F. Tickets: $9-$10. Information:

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.