Zohar: Mediterranean Blues

The good news about the new Israeli film, Zohar: Mediterranean Blues, is that despite the fact that it's a story of the rise and fall of popular singer, it's not formulaic in the way that most biopictures are. Endowed with a distinct flavor of Israeli culture and politics, Zohar is an honorable representative of the new Israeli cinema and as such should be a welcome addition to any film festival and retrospective of Israeli films.

Film begins with the release of Zohar (Shaul Mizrahi) from prison, where he spent one year for an assault on a woman. Still attached to his former wife (Dafna Dekel) and their young boy, he hopes to rekindle their love, though she is now dating another man.

Most of the narrative concerns Zohar's struggle to establish a name for himself as a folk singer that performs moody, soul Sephardic songs, in an industry dominated by Western music. Set in the l980s, Zohar draws an interesting analogy between an ethnic singer's rising popularity and the Sephardic community's claim to greater recognition of its distinctive culture.

Chief problem is that the screenwriters, Moshe Zonder and Amir Ben-David, wish to play the tale both ways, as a personal and national tragedy. However, the script never makes it clear to what extent Zohar's drug addiction and eventually senseless death, at the age of 32, derived from his personal frustrations over unrequited love for his ex-wife. Ultimately, the film works better as a psychological study of a singer who became a victim of drugs than as a metaphor for the long-enduring clash between Israel's Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities.

Gifted helmer Eran Riklis, who directed Final Cup, one of the more riveting Israeli films of the last decade, keeps his camera close to Zohar, his family and associates. The visual style, while modest, is unobtrusive, effectively serving the personal drama. Similarly, as Zohar, Shaul Mizrahi, who appears in almost every scene, renders a natural, most touching performance.

Truly depressing in its portrait of self-degradation induced by drugs, Zohar is a demanding film that may not be to everyone's taste. But always honest and realistic, pic is a good sample of the new, more critical and sophisticated, contemporary Israeli cinema.