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SF Jewish Film Festival: “Sweet Mud”

Posted by dopaminesurge on August 3, 2007

sweet mud posteer sfjff

An arguable must-see for those with utopic notions about the Kibbutz movement, “Sweet Mud” (YNetNews, Ha’aretz, IMDB) tells the story of Dvir Avni’s Bar Mitzvah year in Kibbutz Bet Gvurin during the 1970s. Dvir, played by Tomer Steinhof, cares for his depressive-psychotic mother, Miri (Ronit Yudkevitch) without help from his 18 year-old brother Eyal, who’s busy with Blonde foreign volunteers and his impending army draft. Since the the death of her husband, which was mysteriously regarded as “accidental,” Miri falls for elderly Swiss gentleman named Stephan (Henri Garcin) who comes to visit the kibbutz; but when an incident with a sociopathic Kibbutz member turns violent as Stephan aims to protect Dvir, Stephan is expelled and Miri falls into a series of illness episodes requiring several hospitalizations. [ watch trailer here ]

“Sweet Mud” doesn’t hint at its messages, and doesn’t play down the suffocating nature of the Kibbutz. Kibbutz regulations require that Miri seek permission at a member meeting to host Stephan without demanding work of him. Immediately, the group discussion arrives at personal and uncomfortable details such as Miri’s prior hospitalization, and whether or not Stephan should be allowed into the Kibbutz as a non-Jew; even after enduring the infuriating public discussion about her private affairs, Miri is only granted a portion of the time she requests with her lover.

Dvir lives in the children’s home, apart from his mother, which ensures they both feel detached and lonely throughout. In a memorable scene, a group of boys is treated to a literal mouth-washing by their seemingly strict but privately promiscuous caretaker, and as it is probable that not all parents would condone their sons gagged with a bar of soap, the scene serves to remind the audience of the questionable nature of a herded upbringing.

Technically speaking, the film is superbly filmed, convincingly portraying rural Israel in the 1970s as well as the unsettling angles viewed by a 12 year old boy forced to bear a heavy burden. Beethoven’s Sonata “Pathetique,” played repeatedly by Miri, provides a musical motif to compliment brooding elements in the film. But what may leave the deepest impression is the acting on the parts of Steinhof and Yudkevitch, who passionately convey the pain and uncertainty of mental illness and loneliness. In an unforgettably haunting scene, Miri rebels against the Kibbutz that she believes has robbed her of two lovers and her freedom to raise her sons. A painful representation of mental illness and a symbol for the dangers of communal living, Miri is a compelling and terrifying portrayal.

The film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2007, is director Dror Shaul’s autobiographical recollection of growing up in a kibbutz with an emotionally unstable and widowed mother. Rife with poignancy and heartbreak, intellectually provocative points for consideration, and the occasional moment of comic relief, “Sweet Mud” is a brutal but touching portrayal of an undeniable chapter of Israel’s history.

You can still see “Sweet Mud” tomorrow, August 4th at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, or in San Rafael on August 6th.

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