This account of a hunger strike undertaken by IRA member Bobby Sands in 1981 is the debut feature of Steve McQueen, a young, award-winning British visual artist. McQueen clearly tilts more toward art than documentary, yet his work is no less powerful for it. The 96-minute Hunger is divided into three distinct sections. The first, a series of often spare vignettes, establishes the ongoing tensions and casual brutality within Maze. The second is an almost theatrical presentation of Sands' motivations, outlined in a stunning segment: an 18-minute single take in which the prisoner argues with a priest. And the third is a harrowing yet lyrical depiction of Sands' slow death.
Hunger is undoubtedly a challenging work. For some, its spareness and violence alone will make it difficult viewing. And with virtually no conventional techniques such as defined characters, dialogue or music to cue us, many scenes are as you read them, with no definitive text. With its predetermined ending and its lack of narrative, McQueen's film is something of a meditative exercise -- albeit an occasionally brutal and jarring one. Because it lacks a broader accounting of the external -- the ugly tenor of those specific times that created and sustained bad behavior -- Hunger is not really a history lesson. But as an analog for how seemingly civilized cultures justify violence and barbarity in the name of a higher cause -- be it inside or outside the law -- Hunger is assuredly provocative and strangely beautiful. Starts Fri., May 22. Harris [3.5 out of 4 stars]
In Eran Riklis' modest drama, Salma (Hiam Abbass) is a middle-aged Palestinian widow living alone on the green line between Israel and the West Bank. She quietly ekes out a living from her family's small lemon grove. Then, the new Israeli Minister of Defense moves next door. The leafy trees are deemed a security risk, and ordered to be cut down. Salma, with the help of a young Palestinian lawyer, Ziad (Ali Suliman), fights back. The grove is fenced off, pending a decision. Lurking on the sidelines, but only minimally entering the fray, is the minster's neglected wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), who spends her days at home staring into the contested grove.
Riklis, who also co-wrote the screenplay, tells the story from both sides, though Salma is clearly the aggrieved party, and thus more sympathetic. (Also, Abbass gives a marvelously soulful performance.)
The film focuses chiefly on the women, and their roles in both this conflict and their wider communities. Salma and Mira each muster stands, but the real power ultimately rests with the men. (Riklis makes the rather tepid insinuation that left to their own devices, the women would sort it out. Perhaps -- and perhaps these two would -- but the assumption that women are inherent peacemakers, even in this fraught, contentious place, seems a bit facile.)
Rooted in real events, the film functions as an engaging story in its own right, and also as commentary about the ongoing inability of these two groups of people to literally live side by side.
At times, Lemon Tree feels a bit like Mid-East Conflict 101, with its simplistic symbolism (from shots of rotting fruit to the construction of a wall), and its characters who reiterate history to support their claims. But the quiet pace, fine acting and a certain sun-drenched lyricism keep this film from being a polemic.
It all ends with a judgment worthy of King Solomon and a bitter comment on available compromises. Happy endings, as Salma's lawyer notes, are only in American movies. In Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles. Starts Fri., May 22. Manor (AH) [3 out of 4 stars]