Pick a Card (aka Afula Express)

(Afula Express)
(Israel romantic comedy)

Devoid of politics or explicit ideology, Pick a Card (aks Afula Express) is a new kind of Israeli film: a dramatic comedy about ordinary people who refuse to be defeated by their harsh reality. Helmer Julie Shles uses to a great advantage her documentary background, endowing her tale with the kind of enchanting magic one associates with the work of Fellini.

Winner of six Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Pick a Card is slated as opening night of the Israel Film Festival and it should perform the same function in other destinations of the touring festival. Additionally, the film is a likely candidate for a limited theatrical distribution in American cities that contain large Jewish and Israeli populations.

Style and contents cohere in the enjoyable Pick a Card, a film empahsizing that the manner in which a story is told is just as important as the tale itself. With touches of magical realism that recall Fellini (and other European masters), Shles effortlessly weaves a tale of four ordinary people, at once absurd and exhilarating, whose big dreams are continuously challenged by their mundane existence.

Set in a slum of Tel-Aviv, film revolves around David (Zvika Hadar), a garage electrician from Afula (provincial capital of Northern Israel), and his girlfriend Batya (Esti Zackheim), a large but attractive woman who works at a local supermarket. All his life, David has been dreaming of becoming a magician, but his few experiences have proved, as more than one character says, that he is “the worst magician ever lived.”

Down-to-earth, the pragmatic Batya presses for an ordinary life, settling down and establishing a family, but David refuses to give up his dream. Instead, he links up with Shimon (Aryeh Moskuna), a Rumanian immigrant who's an expert magician. For her part, Batya gets solace from Vickie (Orly Perl), a young woman who lives in their shabby building.

Shles and Amit Leor, who wrote a most credible script, introduce some obstacles as each of the four characters undergoes an emotional journey toward greater maturity and better self-understanding. In the manner of classic American screwball comedies, the couple bickers, reconciles, bickers again, splits and ultimately reunites in a most satisfying way.

With a remarkably mobile (often hand-held) camera, Shles observes in an intimate and penetrating way, the fabric of her character's existence, based on an almost irreconcilable gap between dreams and reality. While providing a detailed account of how people actually live, she doesn't neglect some larger, more significant questions, such as the importance of dreaming “impossible” dreams, the magic inherent in everyday life, love as a form of magic. But the beauty of her film is that these issues are almost flawlessly submerged in an extremely fluent narrative.

As skillful Shles' directorial style is, Pick a Card could not have been as entertaining without the high-quality acting of the entire ensemble. Hadar and Zackheim, who play the leads, acquit themselves with believable yet engrossing performances that to a large extent rely on their non-actorish looks. Assisted with a slangy, streetsmart dialect, they make for a nontraditional but extremely appealing romantic couple. Good supporting work also comes from Moskuna, as the pro magician, and Perl, as the sympathetic neighbor.

Considering the budgetary constraints, tech credits are impressive, particularly Itzik Portal's restlessly observant camera, Maor Kesher's crisp editing, which accentuates the changeable tone from scene to scene, Eva Gronowitz's art direction, which endows the setting with a plausible, nonglamorous look, and Yuval Shafrir's score, which contributes to the right balance between gloomy misery and magical realism.

Credits

A Norma Productions presentation. Produced by Assaf Amir. Directed by Julie Shles. Screenplay, Amit Leor. Camera (color), Itzik Portal; editor, Maor Keshet; music, Yuval Shafrir; art direction, Eva Gronowitz; sound (Dolby), Yochai Moshe and Gil Toren.

Running time: 96 min.

Cast
David……Zvika Hadar
Batya….Esti Zackheim
Shimon…Aryeh Moskuna
Vickie…….Orly Perl