What looks at the outset to be a straightforward vigilante movie about a trio of hot-headed religious watchdogs in Israel turns into a worthy study of personal maturation and growth in God’s Neighbors. Shot in a punchy, nervous style in synch with its impulsive young characters, this impassioned low-budget production trades in tough guy behavior and rough street violence of a sort that doesn’t fit comfortably with usual international art house specifications. But the film’s raw power and controversial content make it a good festival item and will ignite strong reactions among Jewish and Israel-minded audiences.
A trio of twentyish skull-capped guys, Avi, Kobi and Yaniv, have taken it upon themselves to police their Bat Yam neighborhood for transgressions against the letter of religious laws. Handy with baseball bats and their fists, they’re particularly hot to go after Arabs who have the effrontery to play loud music and otherwise disrupt the Sabbath, but they’re also rough on more relaxed Jews who keep their stores open too late on Friday nights, don’t dress right and so on (the film’s Hebrew title can best be translated as The Supervisors or The Monitors).
While they pursue Torah studies seriously with a notably inspiring and charismatic rabbi, the boys aren’t exactly exemplars of conservative behavior, as they smoke weed regularly and are generally unruly, answering only to their own overbearingly physical interpretation of doing God’s will. Long sections of the film play like a religiously charged American buddy movie devoted to noisy, rambunctious scenes of young bloods getting high, horsing around, listening to music and trying to find alternative outlets for their raging hormones.
The arrival of an attractive, independent-minded woman, Miri, into Avi’s life causes the expected, and resented, disruption in the young men’s dynamic. Ari wrestles with his desires in predictable ways, but where God’s Neighbors feels fresh is in he portrayal of his intense religious struggle. In a convincing and involving manner, first-time writer-director Meni Yaesh presents Avi’s inner turmoil through the character’s painful internal debate, as the young man attempts to reconcile his interpretation of God’s commandments, his habitual and violent implementation of them and his feelings for Miri and their future.
The result causes a moving and entirely plausible growth of character, one spurred—of course, since this is in part an action movie—by a final round of bloody violence. But the final stretch gives the drama a heft and impressive perspective that are not necessarily evident up to that point.
Director Yaesh freely admits he grew up loving Van Damme and Chuck Norris action movies and there’s more than a trace of this visible in his in-your-face style; if he had come of age in the heyday of Golan & Globus, there can be little doubt he would have started his career with them. But instead, he’s both used genre tropes and gone beyond them, resulting in a scrappy, hard-hitting debut.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production: BiZiBi, Transfax, CNC, Israel Film Fund
Cast: Roy Assaf, Gal Friedman, Itzik Golan, Rotem Ziesman-Cohen
Director: Meni Yaesh
Screenwriter: Meni Yaesh
Producers: Jerome Bleitrach, Marek Rozenbaum
Director of photography: Shahak Paz
Production designer: Udi Tugendreich
Editor: Asaf Korman