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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Ahed’s knee is a symbol, in Nadav Lapid’s ferocious new film, of individual resistance to oppression. The film director at the heart of this movie, simply known as Y., is in the early stages of preparation for a film about Ahed Tamimi, a real-life Palestinian activist known for a viral video of her slapping an Israeli soldier. Y. wishes to focus, in one scene, on a tweet by an angry Israeli demanding that Tamimi be shot in the knee. While casting the main role, Y. travels to the Arava region – a secluded landscape of rock and dust – to attend a screening of one of his films, organised by Yahalom, a local admirer of his oeuvre, who works for the Israeli Department of Libraries.

Nadav Lapid’s fifth film is combative from the off, with an edit that jitters between scenes and a camera flitting in staccato motion between faces, or suddenly jerking away towards the sky. Music cues, used in abundance (including a counterintuitive use of Vanessa Paradis’s perky 90s Motown pastiche Be My Baby, which Y. dances to feverishly as he explores the deserted neighbourhood), are suddenly curtailed at the end of scenes. This restlessness seems to convey a kind of nervous rage beneath every interaction: Y., played with surly charisma by Avshalom Pollak, is clearly bruised, and it is startling to see the uneasy relationship he immediately instigates with the adoring Yahalom. Lapid films the pair tightly as they converse: their bodies are already too near to one another, as if they were flirting or confronting each other; it seems that a power struggle of sorts is at play.

If the film’s anxious, free-wheeling aspect is exciting, in the early stages of the film it can also feel showy and a little grating. While Y. and Yahalom are getting to know each other, for instance, the camera keeps circling away to the sky through a sunlight, before falling again on either protagonist: this ploy clearly signifies Y.’s wandering attention and the way he is feeling out his surroundings, but after a few iterations it feels forced. However, a narrative development soon justifies most of that formal energy, as Yahalom asks Y. to sign a clearance form issued by the government, confirming that his film does not contain anti-Israel material.

Ahed’s Knee (2021)

From here, the film becomes a knotty morality tale as Y. embarks on a doomed fight to stand up for his artistic freedom, culminating in a quite breathtaking broadside against Israel from the director: an extended rant of devastating eloquence and impact that represents the movie’s clear highpoint.

This political conundrum is presented in tandem with a story that Y. relates about his traumatising experiences in the military, presented in flashback, which functions brilliantly as an ambiguous, shifting analogy for his dilemma. In these scenes Y. is a young soldier in a battalion of libidinal, seething males, who has been coerced by his brigade leader into a suicide pact should they be apprehended by the enemy. The various interpretations that Y. and Yahalom draw from this episode tease out parallels, by turns illuminating and confounding, with the demands imposed on Y. as an artist by the Israeli government. As the hour of the death pact approaches in Y.’s telling so the film gains in intensity, as it seizes the perspiring, rageful despair of its protagonist and the ambivalence of his motives.

This damaging episode, in the way it functions as both a revelator of character and a metaphor for the central narrative, backs up Lapid’s clenched-fist cinematics, lending emotion to all that early pent-up anguish. As Y. unleashes his rage, Lapid’s camera has calmed down a little, all the better to seize the steely intensity of his determination. By this stage Yahalom, played with candour by Nur Fibak, has become a worthy partner/opponent for him – an ambiguous player, in other words, who knows to what extent she is colluding with a despotic regime but seems to be on the same side as Y. politically. The pair are pitted together in a conflict of wills and principles that has, appropriately enough, no easy answers.

Ahed’s Knee is a coruscating drama that trains its eye intelligently on the topic of individual freedoms and personal responsibility under the thumb of tyranny: Lapid finds a properly filmic way to explicate his argument, without being academic or patronising. Though the film drags a little towards the latter stages, becoming a mite overwrought as Y. confronts Yahalom, its heartfelt urgency still pervades overall, making it a startlingly vital and experiential take on a burning political subject.

Further reading

Synonyms first look: Nadav Lapid muddies the dreams of an Israeli in Paris

Nadav Lapid’s boldly unsubtle allegory unsettles the audience’s understandings almost as aggressively as he does the political binaries of his young expat protagonist made over in a supposedly cosmopolitan Europe, says Giovanni Marchini Camia.

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

Synonyms first look: Nadav Lapid muddies the dreams of an Israeli in Paris

Sight and Sound: the Hidden Gems issue

101 critics and directors offer heartfelt recommendations for favourite films that only received a single vote in our recent polls. Plus: Hlynur Pálmason on Godland, Jerzy Skolimowski on Eo, the best films from Sundance and Rotterdam and much more…

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