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Uri Zohar: The Inventor of Modern Israeli Cinema

Before scandalizing Israeli society by becoming an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Uri Zohar made trailblazing films in the New Sensibility movement.
Ariel Schweitzer
MUBI's retrospective Uri Zohar Trilogy is showing July - October, 2020 in France.
Above: Three Days and a Child
A charismatic actor and director, popular television star and icon of bohemian Tel Aviv, Uri Zohar set off shock waves in Israel’s secular society when he decided to become a practicing, observant Jew. Since that time, in the late 1970s, he has become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and has denied his cinematic past, describing it as a dark period in his life.Yet his works have a life of their own. Many of the movies he directed, starting in the mid-’60s—some of which have become part of the canon of Israeli cinema—reveal extraordinary talent, inspiration and sensitivity, and they function as a tragicomic, pitiless and sometimes disillusioned mirror of Israeli society of that era. Born in 1935, Zohar was the main figure of the New Sensibility, this Israeli cinema movement largely influenced by the French New Wave, as well as by other modern cinema movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s throughout the world. The New Sensibility was born in Israel in the middle of the sixties, with Zohar’s first feature film: A Hole in the Moon (1965). This film is to be considered as a kind of a manifesto of this movement, and for two main reasons: it was the first real modern Israeli film whose aesthetic radicalism and abstract qualities created a massive shock effect on Israeli filmmakers;it was also the first Israeli film that directly critiques, using anarchic parody, the Zionist ideology as well as the Zionist propaganda films which were so dominant in Israel up until the sixties.
Israeli critics and cinema historians, like Ella Shohat, often reproached the New Sensibility authors as being disconnected from Israeli reality and for creating in their films a kind of imitation of a European (or Parisian) atmosphere. For example, those filmmakers where currently criticized for their choice of shooting most of the New Sensibility films in the most cosmopolitan city of Israel, Tel Aviv, which they use to represent as a totally occidental city.
Above: Uri Zohar in Peeping Toms
From this point of view, no doubt among all the New Sensitivity authors Uri Zohar was the one who best integrated the influences of European auteur cinema to a specific Israeli topic. Therefore, already in A Hole in the Moon he decided to shoot most of the film in a typically Middle Eastern landscape: the desert of the Negev. His third feature film, Three Days and a Child (1966) is one of the only films of the New Sensibility to be shot in Jerusalem, in a landscape surrounded by hills, where nature mixes up with an urban landscape. Even in its famous “Beach Trilogy”—Peeping Toms (1972), Big Eyes (1974), and Save the Lifeguard (1976)—shoot in Tel Aviv, Zohar does not represent the city as European and cosmopolitan-oriented, but rather as a Mediterranean city that lives permanently on the seaside and under a strong sun. Effectively, he is the first Israeli filmmaker that managed to capture the extraordinary quality and the strong intensity of light in Israel, which is so powerful that it looks as if it comes directly out of the ground.
The existential emptiness, which was one of the main topics of the New Sensibility, was integrated in Zohar’s films, mainly in the Beach Trilogy, into a very authentic and specific Israeli perspective. The personal crises that the mains characters in Peeping Toms and Big Eyes suffer from is evidently linked to a certain collective emptiness in Israeli society, a society in search of its identity, which lost its landmarks after the fall of the Zionist-Socialist ideology that was dominant since the creation of the State. Analyzed as a kind of fictional autobiography, dealing directly with his own sexual and family life, Zohar’s films are frequently preoccupied with the question of limits, or their absence. The heroes of his movies are typically endowed with unbridled sexual lust and nonstop, over-the-top energy. But their inability to set limits to themselves makes them sink into atrophy and veer out of control. Thus, Zohar’s cinema reflects existential crisis and ideological vacuum—not only his own and that of his characters, but that of the society in which he was living then and, to a great extent, also today.
Above: Big Eyes
Most of the New Sensitivity filmmakers realized no more than one or two films in the ‘60-‘70s, and most of them were commercial failures. However, Zohar managed, at the same time, to realize a dozen feature film. This is because he knew how to intelligently analyze the economic situation of the Israeli cinema industry. Therefore, he is one of the only filmmakers of this movement to have also realized commercial films, popular comedies such as Moshe Vintelator (1966) orFish, Football and Girls (Hashehuna Shelanu, 1968), a huge success that enabled him to finance other more personal projects, what we call his auteur films.
Zohar worked, in fact, in all genres of Israeli cinema. He realized a war movie, Every Bastard a King (1967), one of the biggest productions in the history of Israeli cinema, and also comic sketches for TV that became throughout the years an Israeli cultural classic. He is also the author of some of the most authentic Israeli cult movies: Peeping Toms, for example, is still frequently programmed  in special screenings that end up as mass popular celebrations, where the audience accompanies the film, singing the songs and reciting the dialogues together with the actors. This phenomenon can teach us something about the strength and vitality of Uri Zohar’s cinema till today, more than 40 years after he took the decision to abandon the art.

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