A sense of impending danger pervades “The Dive.” The film never approaches the frontline of war but the presence of war permeates the surface throughout. The television and radio are constantly providing reportage from the frontlines. Jets are constantly flying overhead. Somewhere in the distance, guns seem to be going off at all times. And daily text alerts warn of incoming missiles. The threat of danger is ever present and it is augmented by the stultifying mood that seeps into the air of the kibbutz where the film is set.
The proximity of war is an essential part of “The Dive” following in the traditions of centuries of film and literature equating the chaos and madness of war with the chaos and madness of masculinity, and although at first “The Dive” might seem to be more of the same, it utilises that familiar metaphor to devastating effect.
We are in Israel, sometime in the last decade and Avishai is a young man who will shortly be completing his military service in Lebanon. Avishai’s face telegraphs his uncertainty about the impending service from the inception. It’s an uncertainty that is immediately at odds with the relentless certainty of his older brother, Itai. Itai is a veteran of war, and the de facto leader of the kibbutz a year after their father’s death. The already fragile existence is made more fraught by the arrival of the middle son, Yoav. He has arrived after a self-imposed exile, to bury their father, whose remains are ready for burial after giving his body to the university. It’s the father’s final request for the disposal of his body that gives the film its name, but the name is a misnomer in some ways because it’s not really about the titular dive that the film will end on. Instead the title suggests an exploration beneath the surface, which becomes the key to the way that the Israeli film scratches, and then tears at the surface of its characters to reveal unhealed wounds.
The film, playing in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the festival, features a synopsis that immediately belies its own complexity: “When a family patriarch dies, three brothers must put aside their differences to carry out their father’s last wishes.” The synopsis is not inaccurate, and yet cannot begin to suggest the wealth of nuances. One of the most evocative attribute that takes on meta-textual significance is its observations on fraternal relationships. The three brothers of the film are played by a real-life trio of brothers Yona, Yoav and Micha Rozenkier, all performing under the direction of Yona, who writes and directs the film in his feature film debut. It’s a fact I found out until the film ends and makes the chemistry between the three brothers even richer when put into context. The casting of the siblings isn’t a mere stunt, though. “The Dive” stands confidently, and surely on its own.
Yona Rozenkier speaks with a surprising amount of diffidence when the quality of his film comes up. It’s more than just polite self-deprecation, but in discussing his feature-film debut (he’s directed a couple of shorts before) he seems eager to admit what he calls the first-time director roadblocks he ran into. Indeed, the film is curiously unwilling to fit into one genre – it moves from dark humour to searing violence to family drama to occasional farce. But this is not indicative of a director unaware of his focus, but instead indicative of a film that seems to be imitating its characters inability to settle into being one thing. For all Rozenkier’s self-deprecation, “The Dive” is one of the most confident, and one of the more emotionally affecting films of the Toronto International Film Festival.
It follows in the footsteps of a number of the more male-oriented films of the festival (the Scottish epic “Outlaw King,” American western “The Sisters Brothers,” and crime comedy “The Old Man & the Gun). “The Dive” has a lot things happening beneath its surface, but its central focus is an examination and then subsequent evisceration of traditional masculinity. That Rozenkier performs this examination through the lens of brotherhood makes the film even more evocative. Avishai’s uncertainty about going off to war becomes the catalyst of a showdown between his two older brothers as they must now wrestle with what it means to be soldiers, to be brothers, and to be men. Rozenkier’s writing is perhaps a touch sharper than his direction (the script is so unrelenting and sincere, though, it’s tough to beat) but his simple direction never feels facile because of it. More often than not, he steps back to allow his brothers to overwhelm the screen, and he’s aided by a mocking score that informs the uncertain tones of the film. The most visually conspicuous scene, pictured above, features some of his strongest directions. The brothers participate in a mock battle, using paint ball instead of bullets, but the practice session is not made any easier or any less affecting for the absence of bullets. It’s an unsubtle but excellent metaphor as the reality of what Avishai will soon be going off to is countered by the inherent childishness of paintball. When the climax of the scene comes, the humour that sustained the scene becomes bitter.
A later scene, presents the film’s best asset in all its glory – Yoel Rozenkier’s performance as the middle brother. As the middle brother, prodigal son Yoav is the third brother we meet and he gets the best entrance; slowly the film reveals the trauma lurking beneath his initial quietude as the slow burn of his silence builds to distressing explosions. There’s a music break with a dizzying few minutes of strobe lighting effects that come somewhere in the last third of the film. The moment is one of my favourite uses of a popular song in a film of the festival and it’s so immediately incongruous it demands attention as Yoav dances on with abandon that turns from carefree into terrifying wild. Yoel is acting with his entire body, telegraphing Yoav’s desperate need for release. The abandon is fascinating to watch and represents the sort of carefree openness that marks his character. It’s the best manifestation of masculinity on the edge, and the trust of a brother who knows you so well that he steps back and gives you room to perform.
By the time tits 90-minutes are up, “The Dive” seems like it has hours more of story to tell. And that’s to its benefit. It’s a character study in the best of ways, not of a man but of a trio of brothers. Its themes are familiar, but its rumination on those themes feels essential.