Life During Wartime

From a country torn by religious divisions and ethnic violence, Broken Wings breaks past the headlines to deliver a working-class family drama that could have been from any industrial country. And although there's no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one senses that Middle Eastern politics nonetheless infuses the film in its chaos and overwhelming sense of crisis and loss.

The film opens with 17-year-old Maya (Maya Maron) preparing to sing with her band at a young musicians' competition in Tel Aviv. She's in good voice and they've been waiting to play out for months. But the thrill quickly dies -- her mother calls to say she'll be working late at the hospital so Maya must pick up her sister from school.

Instead of enjoying her blooming youth, Maya plays surrogate mother to her three sullen siblings. Her 16-year-old brother Yair (Nitai Gvirtz) has dropped out of school and now passes out leaflets in the subway while dressed in a mouse costume. Her 11-year-old brother Ido (Daniel Magon) videotapes his mock death by jumping into an empty swimming pool as 6-year-old sister Bahr (Eliana Magon) watches in somber silence.

Their mother, Dafna Ullman (played by stage actress Orli Zilberschatz-Banai), senses her children's growing despair but cannot afford to be with them. Nine months ago their father died and she has become the sole breadwinner -- working a low-paying night-shift job as a midwife in a Haifa hospital.

For all its troubled sadness and despair, Broken Wings fails to be depressing -- and its light touch and sense of humor speak to the family's resilience and tenacity. Rather than spiraling into anguish and doom, the story is poignant in its hope and reconciliation. Zilberschatz-Banai's forced cheerfulness is especially moving; with her weathered features and short stature, this mother's everyday heroism grounds the film with a quiet sanity. And genuine love lies beneath the chaos, so when disaster strikes it does not tear apart the family but bring it closer together.

These ironies articulate the family's struggle: the widowed mother working as a midwife, the joyless Yair wearing a comedic costume, the car that keeps dying and being pushed back to life, Ido videotaping his own mock demise. Thankfully, the film flirts with these darker visions, but never fully indulges them. In this way the film wins the audience's trust -- and we become involved in the character's lives regardless of what comes their way.

Writer-director Nir Bergman keeps such intimate moments unadorned in order to retain their power. The music and cinematography maintain low, judicious profiles, and he lets the actors connect with each other naturally. By keeping the specter of the father's death off-screen, he deepens each scene. The grief evoked underscores not only their turbulent past but also their will to live.

Though the press at the Toronto Film Festival made much of the absence of hometown strife, the exchange of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for a smaller and more universal struggle does not belittle the film's origins or its story. Political reality haunts the proceedings much like the father's death: We expect it to turn up around every corner, but it never does. In a way, the film brings us closer to the conflict -- by portraying its players in a domestic family drama, the film breaks down the sense of otherness that we ascribe to ethnicity, religion and class. We see not the angry, vengeful people portrayed on the evening news, but the common working class that transcends ethnic lines.

Broken Wings earned nine top prizes at the equivalent of the Israeli Academy Awards and made a healthy profit for Bergman in his feature debut. Yet it remains a small film in the best sense: In a large, turbulent ocean, it focuses on the shipwrecked characters, clinging to the life raft of their family riding out a giant wave.

Todd Lillethun is a writer and filmmaker in Chicago.

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