Joseph Cedar’s “Campfire” is typical of too many films produced in Israel: plodding, verbose, badly-made and completely monotonous. It is no wonder why Israeli moviegoers are openly apathetic about their local movie industry – with films like “Campfire,” who can be a cine-nationalist?
“Campfire” takes place in 1981, but it might as well be 1581 given the attitude which the film gives to women (watching this movie, you’d never believe Israel elected a female prime minister or that women serve in the military). Rachel Gerlik is a 42-year-old widow with a pair of teenage daughters. However, the idea that a woman possesses brains or skills seems alien to the Israeli society depicted here: men refuse to speak with her when she tries to sell an old car. Rachel wants to move to a community in the Occupied West Bank run by Orthodox Jews, but since she is a single woman she is viewed as some kind of an inferior and there is apathy in the community’s leadership about having her as a resident. One yenta on the community’s leadership board drops unsubtle suggestions that Rachel should marry, and she fixes up the poor widow with some unappetizing bachelors. At home, Rachel’s daughters are starting to go into hormonal overdrive: her eldest daughter takes to sneaking a hunky paratrooper into her bedroom while the younger girl can’t help but notice the cutest guy in the local yeshiva (who can’t seem to keep his hands to himself – which creates more problems all around).
“Campfire” reportedly created a brouhaha in Israel, with several Orthodox Jewish leaders attempting (and failing) to start a boycott of the movie. It didn’t work, as the film won five Israeli Academy Awards including Best Picture and it was chosen as that nation’s entry for the 2004 Academy Award competition as Best Foreign-Language Film.
But from an American standpoint, the film is crude and rickety. The writing barely reaches the professional level, and Michaela Eshet as Rachel seems to have difficulty keeping a straight face at the soapy plot twists her character is supposed to wade through. Eshet appears to be the only person in the movie who can act; the rest of the cast look as if they’re reading lines from cue cards. But Eshet is too intelligent to fit comfortably into her role. When she threatens her rebellious older daughter by holding a hammer to the girl’s guitar, it is an embarrassment to view. And when she finally finds her own independent spirit and voice, it feels like she is doing a poor take-off of the self-empowerment feminist monologues that Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh did in Hollywood films three decades ago.
Actually, there is another inspiration from older Hollywood movies. In a true low point, filmmaker Cedar rips off Tom Cruise’s underwear dance from “Risky Business” by having the younger daughter engage in her own dance-and-lip sync number to an Israeli pop song – except this time around, it is not the least bit amusing.
Oy vey, what a terrible movie!