Israeli-Palestinian hookup in Berlin sparks fest opener

A few years ago, an Israeli filmmaker in his 40s told me he didn’t expect peace to happen until a future generation of Israelis and Palestinians, unburdened by the old narratives and grudges, came of age.

The innovative, uneven Israeli drama “Strangers” takes that sentiment a step further, proposing that understanding and reconciliation have a better chance if the youthful parties are far removed from their native lands. In this case, the location is a Berlin subway, where hunky Israeli Eyal and dark-haired Palestinian beauty Rana mix up their backpacks and wind up mixing it up.

It’s a romantic idea, perhaps a little naïve, but most moviegoers under the age of 30 will be quite happy to embrace a can’t-we-all-get-along fantasy imbued with sexual tension. With the drop-dead gorgeous Liron Levo and Lubna Azabal playing the leads, the setup is movie-perfect — which makes the film’s subsequent attempts to incorporate reality harder to accept.

Shot mostly with a handheld camera in a casual, intimate style, “Strangers” is noteworthy less for its superficial insights into the Israeli-Palestinian situation than for reflecting the 21st-century gestalt of international 20-somethings who inhabit a mobile, fluid world where geographical borders, language barriers and class differences are unimportant.

The common currency is the vitality and optimism that comes with being young and alive and possessing fully operational hormones. One infers that some of the characters, namely Eyal, have rejected (or at least have not yet accepted) traditional mores and paths and roles. But hooking up provides a pleasant diversion while he’s figuring out who he is and what he wants.

“Strangers,” which had its international premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is the opening night film of the 28th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 24. It also screens three additional times during the fest.

In a risky experiment that doesn’t fully pay off, the film was scripted and improvised as it was being shot. While “Strangers” does capture both the fumbling awkwardness and innate attraction of two strangers connecting, Azabal in particular often seems to be marking time rather than coming up with lines that move a scene forward.

The filmmakers chose Berlin less for the echoes of the Holocaust or the 1936 Summer Olympics than for its setting as host of the 2006 World Cup final. One of the most effective scenes (partly because it doesn’t rely on dialogue) is a montage of Rana and Eyal enjoying their first night on the town together, watching a soccer match on a huge outdoor screen and mingling with the crowd.

The first third or so of the film is an enjoyable travelogue that floats on the easy-on-the-eyes charms of its leads. The rest of the film spins on plot turns and complications that are wholly unexpected and range from riveting and wrenching to unbelievable.

The Second Lebanon War broke out during filming, and the moviemakers elected to incorporate it into the script. Most of the time co-directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor creatively and adroitly handle the collision of the personal and the political, but they leave in a few too many clumsy and forced moments.

These stumbles wouldn’t matter as much if the foundation of the film — the relationship between Rana and Eyal — was constructed more solidly. Sexual allure, and even infatuation, are easy to understand, but we need to be convinced as the movie unfolds that Rana is so special that Eyal is compelled to be with her.

Some suspension of disbelief is likewise required to accept Eyal, the nicest, kindest, most sensitive and most accommodating Israeli male ever glimpsed in a movie (not to mention real life). If anybody can rectify Israel’s image around the word, and maybe even negotiate a peace treaty, he’s the one.

“Strangers” screens 8 p.m. July 24 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco; 6:45 p.m. Aug. 2 at CineArts at Palo Alto Square; 8:15 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre; and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael.

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.