Scene from "Shelter"
Scene from "Shelter"

A Mossad agent and her Arab informant seek elusive ‘Shelter’ in new Israeli film

Eran Riklis has enjoyed one of the most successful international careers of any Israeli director, partly because so many of his films express a tempered optimism that common ground exists between Israelis and Palestinians.

From the bonding of an Israeli hostage and his PLO captors over their mutual love of soccer in “Cup Final” (1991), through the various empathetic relationships that propel “The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree,” “Zaytoun” and “Dancing Arabs” (based on Sayed Kashua’s autobiographical novel), Riklis’ movies advance the possibility that individuals can transcend seemingly intractable political differences if they just get to know each other personally.

Riklis’ new film, “Shelter,” screening Monday, March 12 at the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, corrals two pretty young women — a Lebanese informant and the Mossad agent assigned to protect her — in a spacious Hamburg apartment while, unbeknown to them, powerful geopolitical forces conspire to thwart their escape.

The movie doesn’t guide Mona and Naomi’s developing relationship in such a way as to suggest that women have a better chance of forging peace in the Middle East than men. Instead, because one woman has a son and the other is trying to conceive, they represent the spring of life. The next generation — their children — symbolize the perennial hope that peace will come one day.

The idealistic viewer is never allowed to forget, however, that “Shelter” is a story of spies, governments and shadowy ulterior motives. Every moviegoer versed in the thriller genre knows that dreams of a better future are usually outgunned by the base impulses of betrayal and revenge.

The twist here is that although the act of revenge is necessitated by a betrayal, it fulfills a promise.

While “Shelter” aims to satisfy commercial expectations with the requisite tension, paranoia and cloak-and-dagger shenanigans, Riklis is more interested in the connection that develops thanks to the close proximity of Naomi (played by Neta Riskin) and Mona (Golshifteh Farahani). Adapted from a short story by the late Israeli author Shulamith Hareven, the film graphs points of overlap, intersection and outright transference between the characters.

Mona, the informant, is recovering from plastic surgery and going through a painful adjustment to her bandaged face and freshly shorn hair. She loses herself in an assortment of wigs, but it becomes apparent that her modeling isn’t about trying on new identities so much as the filmmaker erasing the gap between her and Naomi

The characters’ mutual identification is the movie’s emotional linchpin and, unfortunately, it doesn’t click satisfyingly into place. “Shelter” is only successful to the degree that the viewer is persuaded by the actresses and willing to forgive dialogue awkwardly translated into English.

Because the movie never fully catches fire and engulfs us in Naomi and Mona’s predicaments, one’s mind wanders to other films with which “Shelter” shares plot points: The set-in-Germany Mossad tales “Walk on Water” and “The Debt,” and the recent German postwar noir “Phoenix,” in which the central character uses plastic surgery to reinvent herself. In fact, Neta Riskin shares more than a passing resemblance with Jessica Chastain in “The Debt.”

The satisfactions of “Shelter” lie in the production design and photography, which contrast the domesticity of the apartment — a would-be feminine oasis, despite the encroaching dangers — with the metallic, male-dominated outside world.

The title, alas, is an illusion. There are no safe spaces, and no places where Mona and Naomi can block out their losses, regrets and impossible choices.

“Shelter” screens at 4:30 p.m. March 12 in East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, Century 16 Pleasant Hill, (93 minutes, unrated, in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)

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.