“An Israeli Love Story” focuses on the relationship between aspiring actress Margalit and her lover.
“An Israeli Love Story” focuses on the relationship between aspiring actress Margalit and her lover.

‘Israeli Love Story’ — romance in pre-state Israel

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Unfolding in the months prior to the founding of the Jewish state, “An Israeli Love Story” is about the relationship between an aspiring actress and a kibbutznik who’s also a member of the Palmach, an elite fighting force.

The film treats crucial developments in 1947 and 1948 — such as the rising tensions between Arabs and Jews and the smuggling of Jewish refugees from Holocaust-riven Europe into Palestine — largely as background, yet it movingly conveys both the idealism and the sacrifice through which the tiny nation was created and built.

“An Israeli Love Story” will make its West Coast debut on Oct. 25 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, followed by another screening Oct. 29 in San Jose, both in the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Set in the same era and place as Otto Preminger’s 1960 landmark “Exodus” but decidedly more modest in scale, the film focuses, for worse and for better, on the relationship between Margalit Dromi (played by Adi Bielski) and Eli Ben Zvi (Avrahim Aviv Alush, recently seen as Rabbi David in “The Women’s Balcony”).

After an awkward opening scene that reveals the tragic fate of one of the lovers, veteran director Dan Wolman flashes back — how far back is never clear, but it only feels like a few months — to trace Margalit and Eli’s romance from its genesis, a random meeting on a bus. Margalit falls in love instantly and tries to get close to him, but Eli, the son of Israel’s second president, is too busy with the Palmach.

The movie was inspired by actress and theater director Pnina Gary’s solo autobiographical play, which she wrote in 2002 but didn’t produce until 2008. Gary’s choice to play her youthful self was Bielski, who performed the piece hundreds of times in the ensuing years and was the natural choice to play Margalit on screen.

That suggests we can trust the accuracy of Bielski’s portrayal of Margalit as a lovestruck teenager who, to give one example, is less interested in assisting the freezing, disoriented European refugees who have landed under cover of darkness than in making an impression on Eli.

However, Margalit comes off as callow, and it takes a while for the film to find a satisfying balance between the love affair, Margalit’s ambition to study acting and the weightier matters demanding Eli’s attention — the plans for his nascent kibbutz Beit Keshet and the armed defense of Jews.

Although hampered by the production values of a TV movie, “An Israeli Love Story” ultimately achieves a poignant power. En route, it offers a rare glimpse of everyday life in the postwar, pre-state years.

An Israeli Love Story” screens at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at the AMC Saratoga 14, 700 El Paseo de Saratoga, San Jose. (Unrated, 96 minutes, in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles) svjff.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.