Teenageoptimism and unconditional family love are of the great truths and lights in the world, so any stripping of those reads tragic.
Noble Savage, the Israeli drama based on the Dudu Busi’s novel by the same name (Pere Atzil, in Hebrew), captures the tragedy of the optimism of youth lost to the necessary caring for adults. Having been nominated for Best Picture at the Ophir Awards (colloquially known as the Israeli Oscars), Noble Savage has landed on international VOD.
In his run-down Tel Aviv neighbourhood, teenage Eli (Neveh Tzur) has no reason to be idealistic, yet has unchecked optimism about repairing his parents’ broken marriage. His mother, Sima (Liat Ekta), a recovering addict living with her new boyfriend, Yefet, and his father, Yom Tov (Alon Aboutboul), an alcoholic, live in the same complex, their lives intersecting while seeming worlds apart. Eli, who can barely keep together his unimportant young life, is set on taking care of his parents and scraping together normalcy by repairing the version of a family he deems desirable.
It’s a familiar tale of the “down and out” child taking care of flawed parents, seen in films like Fish Tank and even Kingsman, but this story is anything but a cliché. Eli appears to be desperately trying to overcome his circumstances, but he’s truly just grasping at ways to make them work for him.
I’d heard this story referred to as a Greek Tragedy, which is apt as it dances with familiar tales, and stands up as its own telling of a well-meaning protagonist tripping over himself trying to do what he believes is right. Eli’s tragedy is that he must grow quickly enough to handle the very real adult problems before him, managing his parents’ finances, addictions, and interpersonal relationships. But though he is forced to handle adult situations, he is still a child, who can’t see past the end goal of a perfect family, no matter how immature his version of that is. For Eli, the tragedy is the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and his mother making Yefet her first choice, but the story’s tragedy is Eli’s inability to see otherwise.
The film showcases the fragility of a child and of a boy when Sima crosses a line she can never go back on. Eli, a victim, isn’t only hurt by the act, but by the way his mother retells it as part of her own recovery. He is hurt, as a child whose assault is reduced to casual wording and made to be about his mother and her boyfriend. He is made to feel like he doesn’t matter by the people who are supposed to love him the most. Eli, hoping to have experienced adult things like sex and love, remains childlike in his broken feelings, and quickness to rage at the sight of his misguided feelings of rejection.
This film appears simple; a small cast in a small setting. Most of the film takes place in the complex, making it feel as claustrophobic as the characters’ lives. Their entire history is within walking distance, their lost lovers, their new ones, their jobs and problems exist within a tiny bubble on this large marble. To Eli, this complex is the entire world, and as the only character seen stepping outside the gates, exposed to a life beyond his broken family, he seemingly views anything beyond the walls to be a vacation, filled with fleeting moments and shallow friends.
In its brief visit with Yom Tov and Sima, the film tackles addiction and how far it can break people and force them into weakened positions. Sima and Yom Tov are simultaneously desperate for certain things, Sima grasping onto the idea of recovery and normalcy, with Yom Tov happily sinking towards rock bottom. Inherited trauma and cycles of abuse are not glossed over, Sima blaming her shortcomings on her own family life, both forgoing responsibility and begging for forgiveness.
Themes of Judaism are ever-present. Sima and Yefet are obsessed with having a “normative” family, setting up for shabbat dinner and breaking with Eli disrupts it. Further, Yom Tom, an artist, the holocaust is an inspiration for both pain and creative output.
It’s beautifully acted and expertly shot in a way that showcased gritty realness and the subtle ways a strong teen boy can appear destroyed. The jarring close of Noble Savage provides no relief. So many loose ends are left dangling, things left open and distressed, Eli left in the fray, without the luxury of relief one feels as credits roll.