Film Review | Weep not for quirky Israeli tragicomedy

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

How quirky is the 2012 Israeli comedy “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring”? Not until 40 minutes in does writer-director Benny Toraty make clear his film is a comedy and, if not for the spoken Hebrew, one might never know it’s Israeli.

Part spaghetti Western, part musical, part quixotic road trip, “The Ballad of Weeping Spring” echoes classic cinema genres to tell a somber story, made lighter by a superb cast and Toraty’s deft touch.

Uri Gavriel stars as Yosef Tawila, a morose ex-musician tormented by his role in the tragic demise years earlier of his band. When the son of a dying fellow band member shows up to deliver a mysterious scroll, Tawila snaps out of his torpor.

“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring”

On that scroll is written the title ballad, which the band wrote years before. It is, as Tawila says, “our will,” and requires the bearer to perform the song to the dying member.

Thus Tawila and the son, Amram (played with quiet power by Dudu Tassa), hit the road to form a new ensemble. Along the way they recruit Tamara (Adar Gold),

a gifted singer and daughter of Tawila’s original colleague, as well as a contingent of musical misfits worthy of a “Star Wars” cantina.

Toraty obscures his story’s time and place. The Israel he depicts bears little resemblance to the real one — it’s more like the Old West. Never is shown a modern metropolis. Men don fedoras and borsalinos, the women dress like extras from “High Noon,” taverns are lit by torchlight, and other than the band’s VW van, Toraty eschews modern contrivances.

One barkeep tells Amram early on, “We don’t use plastic,” and neither does the film.

Homage to the Western courses through every scene. The musicians sling their ouds and fiddles across their backs like Winchesters. They walk through town in a pack as if from a Sam Peckinpah shoot ’em-up.

And those towns are peopled with loons, drunks and crackpots out of the wild, wild East.

In one memorable scene, Tawila recruits as his cellist a henpecked nerd hiding from his jilted, hatchet-faced bride, who sharpens her machete anticipating revenge. Off to the side an ersatz mariachi band plays “The Vengeance Tune,” led by a trumpet player who bears a striking resemblance to Frank Zappa.

The Western tropes continue during an amusing drinking contest between the comely Tamara and a menacing patron who looks like Zorro. The two down shots of arak until one passes out. Guess who wins?

There is a diverting subplot about a beguiling blind flute  player, held captive by a mustachioed villain. It spoils nothing to say Snidely Whiplash gets his just deserts in the end.

Of course, when the band makes it just in time to play the ballad.

As well shot and well acted as it is, the film would not have worked had the music been less than spectacular. Even the title ballad lives up to the hype, with the band’s final performance truly moving.

The cast is superb, especially Adar Gold’s Tamara, Nir Levy as the good-hearted oud player and, above all, Gavriel, who conveys world-weary pain and ultimate redemption with aplomb.

The last shot, of the band in silhouette traversing a hillside, may be one more cinematic borrowing (the final fade-out of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”), but in “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” Toraty proves he can invent a mesmerizing cinematic world all on his own.

“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring”
screens at 2:45 p.m. March 11 at the CinéArts in Pleasant Hill. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (105 minutes)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.