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Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013

Ballad of the Weeping Spring

An Israeli Falafel Western

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The young stranger walks into a bar, a cavernous stony hall where musicians perform in staccato flamenco rhythms, and orders a beer. The stranger, Avram, is searching for a lost legend, Josef, a master of a Levantine stringed instrument called a tar. The bartender shrugs. “He’s a loner,” he tells Avram. But the young stranger is on a mission, a quest to fulfill his father’s dying wish. The mysterious Josef, a man who drinks alone and never gets drunk, is the key.

So goes the premise behind Ballad of the Weeping Spring, the Israeli film that won four Ophirs, that country’s answer to the Oscars. The director, Benny Toraty, brings a fascinating sensibility to bear on his material. His parents, Persian Jews, fled their ancient homeland for Israel in the 1950s with little in their baggage but a kamancheh, the bowed instrument at the heart of Persian classical music. Toraty spent much of his youth in his neighborhood Tel Aviv cinema, absorbed for hours in the westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone.

Israeli critics have dubbed Weeping Spring a “falafel western,” an apt description for a film that becomes an odyssey along the lines of The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven—except that musical instruments take the place of swords and six-guns. Avram recruits the laconic, initially reluctant Josef to organize a traditional Near Eastern orchestra of strings, woodwinds and percussion instruments to perform a certain song at his father’s deathbed.

As played by Uri Gavriel (best known outside Israel as the blind doctor in The Dark Knight Rises), Josef is a man of brooding, immovable dignity who measures every word and action against his deeply held convictions. He apparently shoulders the burden of long-ago tragedy linked to Avram’s father and some of the musicians encountered on the road. Ultimately, the plot is less interesting than the journey, with its many opportunities to hear the melancholy minor keys of Near Eastern musical traditions that overlap political and ethnic boundaries as performed by soulful musicians in dark Leonard Cohen suits and hats. The characters are colorful, including the mysterious villain in a leather duster who shadows Josef like a dangerous vulture, and the villain’s sidekick, whose greasepaint mustache causes him to resemble a malevolent Groucho Marx.

The setting is evidently an Israeli or Palestinian territory without checkpoints, security walls or terrorism—albeit the rocky landscape could as easily be in Anatolia, Greece or some fictional Gypsy republic. With the visual texture of a fable, Ballad of the Weeping Spring is deliberately out of time; the barrooms are lit with electricity and kerosene, the patrons are dressed in cool thrift store clothes and most of the few automobiles on the dusty roads are vintage Volkswagens. No one is seen tapping relentlessly on smart phones. They’re too busy being transported by the music.

Ballad of the Weeping Spring screens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Marcus North Shore Cinemas, 11700 N. Port Washington Road. The Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival runs Oct. 13-17. For tickets and information, contact Micki Seinfeld at 414-967-8235 or mseinfeld@jccmilwaukee.org.