Dec. 17, 2020
By SHLOMO SCHWARTZBERG
Valley of Tears, the latest Israeli television series to arrive in Canada, comes laden with accolades for its accuracy and commentary on its expensive nature – $1 million per episode, pricey for an Israeli production. (It was sold to HBO Max in the U.S, but premieres with two back-to-back, Hebrew language, English subtitled episodes on Dec 19 on Hollywood Suite in Canada. It only recently finished airing in Israel.)
I can’t quarrel with those facets of the 10-episode series, reportedly the first of at least two planned seasons, but neither can I endorse the show, or at least the episodes I’ve seen. As of this writing, five episodes had been made available as streams to reviewers.
Set just before and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught in surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria on Judaism’s holiest day, the series attempts to paint a picture of this fraught time when the country seemed, briefly, on the brink of extinction. It links various individuals, all apparently based on real people, caught up in the chaos and maelstrom of war.
They include, among others, Yoav (Aviv Alush), commander of an intelligence outpost overrun by the Syrians; Dafna (Joy Rieger), Yoav’s girlfriend, who’s trying to link up with her boyfriend; Melakhi (Maoz Schwizer), a member of Israel’s Black Panthers, a militant Sephardi group fighting for its rights in the Ashkenazi-run country and who is attempting to get back to his tank unit after escaping from jail; Marco (Ofer Hayun), another Sephardic soldier, trying to keep the peace in the same (squabbling, battle scarred) unit; Menny (Lior Ashkenazi, from Foxtrot and Walk on Water), a reporter and counterculture writer looking for a son he doesn’t know who recently came to Israel from Paris to bond with his absent father; and Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), who serves in an intelligence unit and is the first to realize an Arab attack is imminent but, mostly, functions as an hysterical irritant, scared he’s going to be tortured and killed at any moment.
Taboch’s performance is annoyingly one-note, but the rest of the cast, though adequate, aren’t particularly interesting as characters, with the Sephardic ones pretty much reduced to pouting and occasionally giving in to anger.
I had no use for HBO’s other purchased Israeli series, Our Boys, a one-sided and distinctly unsubtle pro-Palestinian screed based on the true story of the murder of an innocent Arab boy in 2014 by Orthodox Jewish settlers bent on revenge after three of their own youth were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.
But that series, monotonous as it often was, at least seamlessly integrated its various personalities into a coherent whole. Valley of Tears awkwardly juxtaposes its storylines which, too often, come across as flat and contrived. That applies especially to Menny’s plight, and though I’ve long considered Lior Ashkenazi to be one of Israel’s best, if not its very finest actor – he had a small part in Our Boys, too – there’s not much he can do with what amounts to a cardboard cut-out role.
The hackneyed rendition of the Black Panther story is particularly galling, as it’s an important part of Israeli history that many Jews and even some Israelis I suspect don’t know. (That Sephardic anger had much to do with fuelling Likud’s victory in 1977, as Menachem Begin capitalized on that community’s disgruntlement, wresting power away from the long-ruling, Askenazi dominated Labour party.)
Even the movie’s battle scenes, though scrupulously authentic, utilizing tanks that were actually used in the Yom Kippur War, are pallid, particularly when stacked up against the powerfully visceral war scenes in films like Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon or even Ari Folman’s animated Waltz with Bashir. That flatness can be laid at the feet of director Yoav Zilberman, who co-wrote many of the episodes too; the series was created by Ron Leshem.
Zilberman’s credits include the fine documentary Watermarks, about a famed female Jewish swim team many of whose members return to Austria decades after the Nazis chased them out, and A Late Quartet, an American drama about a string quartet roiled when one of its members is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Zilberman directs fact and fiction in a very low-key manner, befitting the former but undermining the latter. But that laid-back quality is deadly for a production that needs to be running on adrenaline to be dramatically effective.
In the episodes I viewed, I never felt the country’s turmoil and angst as it transformed from a remarkable military victor in the Six-Day War in 1967 to an army seemingly falling apart at the seams a mere six years or so later. There is one attempt to humanize the Syrian enemy, beyond otherwise portraying them as faceless killers, but, unfortunately, it’s the most predictable scene of all the ones I saw.
There’s a mild political subtext running through Valley of Tears, whether it’s a soldier cursing Prime Minister Golda Meir when the war breaks out, or Menny’s referencing of General Moshe Dayan’s infamous quote that he’d rather have Sinai without peace than peace without Sinai. Menny’s declaration that Dayan, in effect, goaded Egypt into the war because of what he said might shock Western viewers, but it shouldn’t. Israelis have long debated the facts behind the seminal turning points in their country’s history, but let’s face it, there’s always been a patina of propaganda overlaying what Diaspora Jewry is taught or believes about key events like the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.
I fear, however that I’m making Valley of Tears seem more provocative and probing than it actually is. It’s competent enough but, mostly, and ultimately, ho-hum.
Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the London JCC, among other venues. He is also the co-founder of the noted Critics at Large cultural web site. (ww.criticsatlarge.ca)