Love Thy Neighbor
Naftali (Tzahi Grad) is a local celebrity looking at an ambitious new project. When he decides to finally complete some long-delayed work on his studio, he hires a Palestinian worker, who doesn’t show up but sends Fahed (Ala Dakka) instead. Even though his new handyman doesn’t seem to know much about what needs to be done, for a while everything goes well. But then somebody assaulted a girl in the neighborhood and the Israeli community of the close-knit village quickly turns against the stranger, forcing Naftali to finally pick a side.
Tzahi Grad wrote, directed and stars in a story about trying to take justice into one’s own hands. Naftali is a left-wing idealist who, after stressing the need to understand both sides of the conflict, suddenly ends up following through with what he has been preaching. Predictably, all that talk doesn’t necessarily translate into action and although convinced of Fahed’s innocence, Naftali quickly starts questioning his own stance, especially when it becomes painfully apparent that when faced with vigilantes who would gladly engage in violence and he understands that it would be so much easier to simply turn a blind eye.
The idea of mirroring a large-scale conflict in a small environment is as practical as it is effective and that there is clearly a need for this type of confrontational cinema. However, it all escalates a bit too conveniently and quickly to be fully convincing. Yet the film is universal and also extremely upsetting.
The film explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an everyday perspective through a comedic tone.
Grad has written himself a meaty yet delicate role and he proves more than up to the task. “The Cousin” is about a good man forced into a difficult situation heightened by inflamed sensitivities, ample real-life context. Naftali wants to see renovations on his ramshackle studio completed, and gets up early to collect the worker tasked with turning it into a usable space. Professionally, he’s preparing to pitch a new project to a TV network: a reality show that brings a series of Israelis and Palestinians together along the Green Line to document their attempts at mediation.
Naftali took his gardener’s advice and enlisted a Palestinian to undertake the remodeling, rather than hiring someone local and this drastically alters what should have been a drama-free day. Instead of the contractor Naftali had been speaking with, the man’s brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka), takes on the job. Initially reluctant, Naftali ultimately is okay with the change, but when a girl reports an assault nearby, his friends and neighbors are quick to point fingers at the outsider in their midst. The fact that the duo had been at the site of the attack just that morning, further enrages the growing number of involved parties.
The contrast between Naftali’s idealistic TV concept and the terseness unfolding at home isn’t meant to escape attention; Fahed himself calls the small screen project naïve, long before such allegations come his way, and the film makes plain the extent of the ingrained resistance to change.
While the overt clash between rival sides provides the drama and comedy, the battle waged within Naftali gives the movie its perceptive, penetrating centre. Initially trying to stay loyal to his employee, even when faced with vocal and threatening opposition, including from his wife Yael (Osnat Fishman), Grad’s protagonist carries the weight of constant intellectual and emotional readjustment on his shoulders.
Grad is well matched by Dakka and Fishman, both fleshing out pivotal parts that could have remained thin in other hands.