A ‘Debt’ worth paying for
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A ‘Debt’ worth paying for

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Jessica Chastain, as Mossad agent Rachel Singer, in a scene from “The Debt.” Sam Worthington co-stars. Photos by Lauri Sparham

For a long time, spy films typically were not part of the Israeli cinema repertoire. Israelis, it seems, avoided films with intelligence themes, perhaps because putting them on the big screen made Israelis somewhat uncomfortable.

American and European moviemakers have had fewer reservations; for them, the Israeli spy thriller is an attractive one. Over the last 30 years, they have given us a John le Carré adaptation (“Little Drummer Girl,” 1984); the story of Israeli spy Elie Cohen, who reached the highest levels of influence in Syria (“The Impossible Spy,” 1987); and Steven Spielberg’s story of those who avenged the Munich Olympic Massacre (“Munich,” 2005), to cite just a few. All of these films tackled the deep divisions between Israelis and Arabs, and the attempt by Israel to assassinate or spy on some “bad” Arabs of importance.

This reluctance in Israel began to change, however, with the appearance of a new “bad guy on the block,” one more easily identifiable with evil-the Nazi. So it is with “The Debt,” a film that opened this week in theaters across the country.

“The Debt” is a part of this somewhat unusual transition, in which Israeli filmmakers take a critical look at their country’s spy service, just as they had done for decades by producing introspective films scrutinizing the military.

In 2004, Eytan Fox, in his film “Walk on Water,” provided a piercing portrait of a Mossad agent who had gone on endless assassination missions. He is sent to seek out and kill a former high-ranking Nazi officer, but his years in the field have worn him down. For him, the glamour is gone. When he finds a weak and sick old man with little time to live, he questions not only the overall purpose of his mission, but his own reasons for doing it. Steven Spielberg revisited the issue the following year with Eric Bana’s Avner character in “Munich.”

Enter producer Eitan Even. Over the course of a 30-year career, he has given us some excellent films – including “The Summer of Aviya” and “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi.” Four years ago, he released HaHov (“The Debt”). In the thriller, the lead character Rachel is a former spy who has become an icon in Israel for having eliminated “The Butcher of Treblinka.” There is more to her story, however, as becomes obvious as the plot unfolds.

The underlying essence of Even’s film is a hard look at the “warrior” class in Israel and an examination of what happens when these soldiers return home and are integrated into society. Exactly what does a society expect of people who go to war and what happens after they return home? This question is an important element in Japanese cinema and became an entire film genre in the United States, especially after the Vietnam War. In Israel, a country in which former war heroes and generals ascend the ladder of politics and industry to take the helm of the country, filmmakers long have struggled with this issue. Now, perhaps to more easily add a female element to the mix, the new warrior doing the important work of the state is a member of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.

Even’s film, directed by Assaf Bernstein and written by Bernstein with Ido Rosenblum, drew little attention in Israeli theaters. Despite some critical acclaim and a fine performance by Gila Almagor, Israel’s leading actress, the film quickly disappeared onto DVD.

Even, however, saw the strides being made by Israeli producers in getting their work picked up for American and British audiences – most notably “B’Tipul” (“In Treatment”), which HBO adapted. So he took the story to England and arranged for a remake of the film, but for an English-speaking audience. He stayed on as a producer in the remake of “The Debt,” which stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Wilkinson in the lead roles. It is the kind of thriller that is framed by fine performances and a fair amount of action to hold a viewer’s attention, from beginning to end.

On one level, this is just another spy thriller, set largely in 1990s Israel and 1960s East Berlin, when Cold War tensions provided the kind of intrigue that can captivate just about any audience. The fact that the bad guy-a doctor who conducted experiments in the Nazi death camps, known in this version as “The Butcher of Birkenau”-is to be spirited away to Israel to stand trial seems plausible and acceptable to just about any audience. It is then, however, that the Jewish question of what constitutes justice enters the debate. In the end, these three young agents fake an assassination of the victim and abort their mission, putting themselves at great risk. An important side issue also dealt with in the film is how Israeli society rewards machismo and faults weakness and inefficiency. I found this to be a particularly interesting subplot in the film.

As with any thriller, providing too much of the story in advance spoils the unfolding of the plot that this film does quite well. So, be careful what you read, because there is always the temptation for a reviewer to tell it all! John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) does a credible job directing, with a screenplay written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan. The crisp music by Thomas Newman (son of Hollywood music great Alfred Newman) is worthy.

Watching Helen Mirren do her magic on the screen is always a delight and almost as impressive is Jessica Chastain as the young Rachel.

This is certainly a film to see.

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