A relatively good film

THE COUSIN
Hebrew title: Ha’ben Dod
Written & directed by Tzahi Grad With Tzahi Grad, Ala Dakka, Osnat Fishman
Running time: 93 minutes In Hebrew and Arabic.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.

Tzahi Grad’s film The Cousin is an odd and interesting look at the disconnect between what many Israelis believe and how they actually live.

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Grad, best known as an actor who has appeared in such films as Big Bad Wolves and The Flood, is Israeli cinema’s go-to guy when directors needs someone to play a perversely likable bastard. He has also directed two previous films, Giraffes and Foul Gesture.

The Cousin, which he wrote, directed and stars in, is an ambitious mixture of political drama, black comedy and psychological thriller.

It’s not easy to mix these three genres, and there are often jarring shifts in tone. It plays as if Grad wanted to capture all the emotions that one man can experience on a single day, and at times he succeeds in creating a compelling portrait of a frazzled man. The movie is best when it is focusing on the details of everyday life that can drive anyone crazy, like phones that ring at the worst possible moment or guys who can’t bear to admit they don’t really understand the details of home repair. It’s at its weakest when it tries to show up the ugly Israeli who talks a very liberal game but is confused and mistrustful when confronted with an actual Arab.

Naftaly (Grad) is something of a celebrity, a pundit who meets with television executives to develop a show about coexistence. He has produced a video complete with cute graphics about the need for tolerance and dialogue. But when he goes to pick up an Arab worker who is supposed to renovate a cabin on his property that he wants to use as a work space, he gets confused. At the agreed meeting place, a man who is not the person he spoke to gets into his car, insisting he is the brother of the original worker. Fahed (Ala Dakka) claims to know all the details about the project, although Naftaly is skeptical about whether he really has the skills necessary for the job. Reluctantly, he takes Fahed home, and the young man gets to work. They go out to buy supplies, and when a teenage girl is sexually assaulted right near the store, suspicious neighbors accuse Fahed.

The police take him in for questioning but release him a few hours later.

Although at one point Naftaly says convincingly that surely the police wouldn’t let a Palestinian walk if there were a shred of evidence against him, at other times he seems swayed by the arguments of some of his thuggish neighbors, who doubt Fahed’s innocence. Naftaly invites him to eat with his family, and the mix of awkwardness, genuine friendliness and misunderstandings will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation. I wish that Grad had stuck to the comedy of manners that he seems to be setting up at times, but often just when there is an interesting, believable exchange, the story quickly shifts back to the bad neighbors who are just out to get Fahed because he is an Arab.

Grad is convincing and affable as a bewildered Israeli whose convictions are put to the test. That his real-life children play his on-screen family adds to the feeling that he is playing a version of himself. Ala Dakka is particularly appealing as the worker who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dakka has appeared in the movie Beyond the Mountains and Hills and the television series Combat Medics (Taagad) and Mossad 101. He has a hipster charm, and a couple of clips show off his skill as a rapper.

The relationship between these two characters is at the heart of the movie, but it seems as if Grad didn’t quite think it would sustain a movie so he added the neighbors, who all but wield pitchforks and torches as they menace Fahed. It’s frustrating to see so many engaging elements that don’t get developed, although much of the movie is fun to watch.