Sweet Mud

(Adama Meshugaat, in Hebrew with English subtitles)

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)–“Sweet Mud,” the third feature from the gifted Israeli writer-director Dror Shaul, is a sensitive and disturbing coming-of-age tale that's grounded in a most particular locale and time, an Israeli kibbutz circa 1974.

In Hebrew, the film's title means “Crazy Soil,” and it's a more accurate one in describing the narrative, which centers on one young boy who channels all of his energy and marshals all of his resources for one “sacred” goal: Nurturing his problematic mother.

The Israels kibbutz system, the countrys collective farms, which epitomized the Zionist movement and date back to the 1910s and 1920s, have been in decline over the past few decades. But up until the 1950s, they represented a utopian ideology (so to speak) in their democratic, egalitarian, and agricultural values (sort of back to the earth movement, which became popular for a short time in the U.S. in the 1960s).

Based on Shauls personal experience, the drama depicts Dvir (Tomer Steinhof), a 12-year-boy who goes through a painful process of personal and social awakening, set against the harsh realities of his specific circumstances. Indeed, amid lush fields and presumably idyllic landscape, Dvir, whose father is dead and brother is in the army, has to deal all by himself with his mentally unstable mother Miri (Ronit Yudkevitch) when she returns to the kibbutz after staying at a mental hospital.

As Dvir prepares for his bar mitzvaha time for initiations and trialshe and his mom has to deal with the fact that emotional instability is perceived as a stigma in their kibbutz (and the country at large). The family's personal problem clashes with the kibbutz's collective goals and the duo are subjected to insensitivity and humiliation, and on both pragmatic and symbolic levels, an uncaring system that places strong emphasis on conformity to the norm and doesn't tolerate deviations, be they physical, mental, or emotional. In short, Dvir is left to care for his fragile mother.

Turning point occurs when Miri's boyfriend Stephan, arrives from Switzerland, and it seems (but only seems) that benefiting from love and support, she is on her way to recovery.

Since Stephan is literally a foreigner, the kibbutz members labeland treat himas an outsider. It doesn't help that Stephan has strong opinions and doesn't hesitate to express them in direct confrontations whose goal is to defend the young Dvir.

Unfortunately, the text suffers from one-sidedness and stereotypical portrayal of the kibbutz and its members. While the characterization of the three main protagonist is detailed and multi-layered, the other figures come across as generalized types.

Even so, “Sweet Mud,” is a painful and disturbing coming-of-age saga, and though it's situated in a specific socio-political context, it also serves as an allegory about the clash between “different” and “deviant” individuals and a surrounding social system that places emphasis on being “healthy” and “similar.”

As director, Dror Shaul, who developed this screenplay in the Sundance Directors Institute Lab, continues to show progress. I have seen and liked his 2003 feature debut, “Simon Vaknin, Witch,” and am now looking forward to see his sophomore effort, “Operation Grandma,” a 1950s comedy that broke box-office records in Israel and won the country's Oscar for Best Film.

Cast:

Tomer Steinhof, Ronit Yudkevitch, Henri Garcin, Shai Avivi, Gal Zaid and Sharon Zuckerman

Credits

Running time: 97 min.

Director/Screenwriter: Dror Shaul
Producers: Sharon Shamir, Johannes Rexin, Bettina Broekemper, Philippa Kowarsky, Edgard Tenembaum and Dror Shaul
Cinematography: Sebastian Edscmid
Editing: Isaac Sehayek, Halil Efrat, Michal Cohen
Music: Tsoof Philisof, Adi Rennert