The New York Jewish Film Festival (January 12-23) opens strongly with “America,” gay writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer’s (“The Cakemaker”) outstanding film about three intertwined lives.
Eli Cross (Michael Moshonov) is living in Chicago and working as a swimming instructor when he gets a call from a lawyer in Israel saying that his father died a month ago. Eli had changed his name (from Greenberg) because of a traumatic episode from his past and moved to America. Returning to Tel Aviv, he reconnects with Yotam (Ofri Biterman), his childhood friend and neighbor growing up. Yotam runs a flower store with his finance, Iris (Oshrat Ingadashet), an Ethiopian Jew.
There is a palpable homoerotic tension between the two men, but Grazier only hints at this bromance with glances and the affection they share. When the guys arrange to go swimming in a hidden creek near Haifa, an accident occurs and Yotam ends up in a coma. Although Eli was not responsible for the accident, he feels overcome with guilt.
At this point, “America” shifts perspectives from Eli to Iris. She monitors Yotam’s progress, which is uncertain. She tries to stimulate his senses by offering a sprig of parsley, some sage, and some mint for him to smell. (The film is very sensual.) She and Yotam’s parents, Moti (Moni Moshonov) and Orna (Irit Sheleg), are told Yotam is in a vegetative state. Eli has been asked to stay away.
Grazier wisely never plays up the melodrama of this situation. Instead, the film focuses on how the characters cope with loss and trauma finding hope amid the sadness. After Iris returns to managing the flower shop, Eli hires her to help create a garden in the backyard of his family’s home. He also invites her to spend time at the pool, where he finds a job. The two acquaintances slowly help each other through this difficult time by just being together and keeping busy. The scenes between them are infused with both melancholy and desire, and Grazier’s insistence in letting viewers absorb the characters’ private, quiet, reflective moments triggers considerable emotions.
Eventually, Eli and Iris begin a physical relationship, as if sublimating their deep love for Yotam through each other. As contrived as that development may be, however, “America” never feels mawkish or overly sentimental. The film is compassionate. Eli is patient helping an anxious young swimmer let go, breathe, and learn to float. Iris expresses concern for a customer buying flowers for a funeral, while another customer, getting a bouquet for his boyfriend, expresses concern for her when she appears vulnerable. There is also a wonderful, albeit ambiguous scene where Eli and Iris witness a father bullying his son in a restaurant. Eli excuses himself and possibly deals with the father’s behavior, something he was unable to do with his own dad.
Eli’s backstory is complicated. Orna recounts what transpired to Iris, explaining that Eli’s father was abusive and his mother committed suicide. But again, Grazier does not lay the tragedy on too thick. Eli is seen to be more of a protector than a victim. Likewise, Iris is looking to protect Yotam as he lies in recovery. Her own backstory involves leaving her religious family as a teenager and finding her own way in the world. She is not unlike Eli.
“America” shifts its point of view again in its third act, which is as absorbing and as satisfying as the episodes that feature Eli and Iris. Grazier’s talent as a filmmaker is to prompt viewers to recalibrate what they feel and know about the characters as more is revealed about them.
Grazier also pays considerable attention to color, filming Eli in blue clothes and a bright blue helmet to emphasize not just his relationship to water (as a swimmer), but also the sadness that blue represents. Blue also expresses qualities of freedom and sensitivity. Likewise, Iris, despite the color of her name, is surrounded by green in almost every scene, indicating growth and earth, life, fertility, renewal, and resurrection. In his few scenes, Yotam wears red clothing, which is indicative of sacrifice, danger, and courage, but also heart. The film uses these color symbols to enhance the mood and feeling; they never feel heavy-handed. The production design, by Daniel Kossow (Grazier’s husband) is also fabulous, with red and yellow walls that pop, bringing the character’s expressions and emotions into bold relief.
“America” also addresses issues of masculinity in crisis as Eli and Yotam both grapple with what it means to be a man. Their identities are bound up in their past and future, respectively. Can Eli truly escape the trauma of his past by changing his name and moving to America? Will Yotam, if he recovers, still be “a man” if he loses some of his physical abilities? Both characters, along with Iris, must rebuild their lives to some degree or another and the drama of “America” lies in if and how that happens.
Grazier’s film is a thoughtful, meditative character study that yields as many insights as it does emotions.
One other film by a gay filmmaker, along with two shorts featuring queer subjects, will also screen at the New York Jewish Film Festival. The documentary feature, “I am Not,” (January 12, at 5:30 pm), by out gay filmmaker Tomer Heymann, profiles Oren Levy, a Guatemalan baby who was adopted by an Israeli family returning to Central America. In addition, two queer shorts — “Make Me a King,” by Sofia Olins, about Ari, a nonbinary, Jewish drag king; and the animated entry, “My Parent, Neal,” by Hanna Saidiner, about her transgender parent — are both playing in the “Shorts by Women” program (January 18 at 8:30 pm.)
For tickets, showtimes, and more information about the New York Jewish Film Festival 2023, visit filmlinc.org.
“America” | Directed by Ofir Raul Grazier | Screening January 12 at the New York Jewish Film Festival