One of the finest movies to come out of Israel and the first of that country’s cinematic output to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, the 1964 satire “Sallah” is a wonderfully rude smack at the Promised Land’s hypocrisies and corruptions.
Set in 1949, the film follows the arrival of a family of “Oriental Jews” from a seemingly primitive Arab land in the recently-independent and fully Westernized Israel. The patriarch of the family, Sallah Shabbati, is flabbergasted that his unruly clan is not receiving contemporary housing, but is instead being dumped in a Maabara, a camp full of one-room huts that is supposed to be temporary. The emphasis is on “supposed to be” – the problems with integrating the new immigrants from the Sephardic diaspora is not an overwhelming priority.
Sallah himself confounds the Israeli authorities who come upon him. Lazy, shiftless and honestly rude, he sees his new Israeli more as a con job playground then a source of ethnic pride. In the film’s funniest sequence (and one that is still a bit shocking), Sallah openly disrupts a brazen scheme to dupe American Jews into donating funds for the planting of trees in Israel. (And don’t ask Sallah to actually dig a hole for the tree – in his one act of genuine exertion, he creates a hole that could bury a tree rather than house it!)
Much of the humor in “Sallah” might be lost on those who are unfamiliar with the conflicts between European and Sephardic Jewish cultures. However, nothing is lost in translation with the wonderfully broad and brusque performance by Topol as Sallah. The Israeli actor was only 29 when he starred in this film (the make-up job hiding his youth is truly remarkable), and his hilarious interpretation of the cantankerous immigrant who reshapes Israel to fit his needs still resonates among the pantheon of glorious movie anti-heroes. Although Topol is best known for playing Tevye in the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a strong argument can be made that “Sallah” was his best movie work.