Ten years after his debut feature, Policeman, won a special jury prize in Locarno, Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Ahed’s Knee has premiered in competition in Cannes. In the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer calls it “his most radical movie yet,” and so far, no other critic has disagreed. For Jessica Kiang, writing in Variety, Lapid’s fourth feature is “a reckless act of aggression not only against creeping state-mandated cultural oppression, but against viewer sensibilities and about a century of cinematic tradition. Quite possibly brilliant, and very definitely all but unbearable, Ahed’s Knee is filmmaking as hostage-taking.”
Choreographer Avshalom Pollak plays a filmmaker referred to simply as Y, and the parallels between him and Lapid are intentionally obvious. As Ahed’s Knee opens, Y is casting women for a project inspired by real-life Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi. In 2017, she slapped an Israeli soldier, and when video of the incident went viral, an Israeli member of parliament suggested in a tweet that she be shot in the knee so that she’d never walk again.
Y aims to keep this project small, perhaps something along the lines of a video installation, a bit of a realignment after winning a big award in Berlin for his last feature. Lapid won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear in 2019 with his third feature, Synonyms, which is loosely based on his years in Paris spent trying to shake off his national identity after the traumatic experience of his military service. Lapid tells Deadline’s Tom Grater that, with his second feature, The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), he “created this connection between the state of art and the political state.” Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is currently sitting on the jury in Cannes, starred in the English-language remake that Sara Colangelo directed in 2018.
Era Lapid, the filmmaker’s mother, edited Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher. She died of lung cancer while they were working together on Synonyms. One month later, Lapid started writing Ahed’s Knee, and he completed the screenplay in just two weeks. Less than a year later, he and his cast and crew spent eighteen days shooting it.
Before Y completes his Ahed Tamimi project, he’s invited to introduce a screening of one of his films in a small town in the Arava Valley, a desolate and dry region south of the Dead Sea. When he arrives, he shoots short videos to send to his mother, a screenwriter dying of cancer. The screening has been arranged by a fan, Yahalom (Nur Fibak), a librarian for the Ministry of Culture. When he learns that he will be required to sign a document declaring that he won’t say anything that might offend the government, Y goes on a furious verbal tear. “In a work that only offers indirect references to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, settlement construction, and the rising Israeli far right, Lapid deftly makes this bureaucratic formality a charged symbol of conformity and censorship in the country,” writes David Katz at Cineuropa.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that as Ahed’s Knee “begins to explain more and more about what drives its leading character, the film becomes less and less interesting,” and at TheWrap, Jason Solomons calls the film “a work of robust intellectual energy and raging conflict that could come across as hectoring and even bullying.” Lapid “directs with fevered, broken-off visual language to match the erratic fury of Y’s speech, the camera bobbing and weaving as if set off its very axis by passion,” writes Guy Lodge at Film of the Week, the site he’s recently launched with Catherine Bray. Editor Nili Feller “fires off hard cuts like gunshots, synchronized to the filmmaker’s anger, and the filmmaker-within-a-filmmaker’s anger.”
At IndieWire, David Ehrlich suggests that Ahed’s Knee is “a smaller and less electrifying film” than Synonyms, “but also one that cuts to the heart of Lapid’s visceral genius and cauterizes the open wound at the center of his body of work. In many ways it feels like a capstone for everything he’s done so far, while in others (especially its knotted generosity), it seems to point a new path forward for one of the world’s most irrepressible filmmakers.”
Lapid himself isn’t quite sure where that path will lead. He tells Tom Grater that he has “started to write a script to contradict my own films, but the more it advances the more the same obsessions penetrate. There is also a relatively big TV project that I’m involved in in the U.S. What do I know about TV? What do I know about the U.S.? We’re working on the script now. I can’t say much more.”
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