Review by Sean Boelman
Nadav Lapid’s previous film Synonyms was a vital and political film about issues of identity, making it one of the finest films of that year. His newest work, Ahed’s Knee, is certainly a lot messier, but with that also comes an increase in the anger and topicality, benefitting from the passion with which Lapid explores these themes.
The film follows a film director who, shortly after the death of his mother, travels to a small town to present a film at a government-sanctioned screening where he is faced with a moral dilemma when they attempt to censor him. Like Synonyms, it’s a very specific story, but its power comes not from a sense of universality in the themes but the precision with which Lapid discusses them in relation to his unique experience.
There is definitely a lot going on here, as there are multiple storylines moving concurrently. It takes about an hour for the threads to all come together, but when everything starts to click, the ingenuity of Lapid’s storytelling becomes clear. He’s building to an absolutely explosive climax that is a perfect culmination of everything that comes before it.
If the film does struggle with one thing, it is that it could have used a bit more focus. Although there is a point to everything in the film, the fact that the film jumps around from idea to idea so often can be a bit disorienting. The perfect example of this is that the title comes from a minor subplot (albeit one that serves as a metaphor for the greater goings on in the film).
Perhaps the most effective thing about the film is Lapid’s character work. It’s rare to see a protagonist with such a multi-layered arc that still manages to feel entirely developed. And Lapid does a great job of making the character sympathetic despite his occasionally unlikable tendencies. The supporting characters are also nuanced, especially the antagonistic ones which blur the lines of traditional understanding of character.
Avshalom Pollak gives one of the best performances of the year in his leading role. The anger which Lapid has written into the script is only made all the more aggressive by Pollak’s impassioned turn. And his up-and-down chemistry with co-star Nur Fibak is absolutely wonderful, making those portions all the more ambiguous.
Lapid may not have been as experimental with this film as he was with his last, but there is still some excellent filmmaking on display here. The cinematography and soundtrack are both wonderful, creating a mood for the film that is enthralling. And the way in which Lapid uses the desert setting to form a sense of isolation is brilliant.
Ahed’s Knee isn’t quite as good as Nadav Lapid’s previous film, but it’s clear that the filmmaker still has a lot to say and knows how to say it. While the unflinching nature of the film may put off some viewers, it is exactly what makes it work so well.
Ahed’s Knee is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.