Looks like I’m beginning a trend of reviewing films directed by non-directors. That’s probably fitting, seeing as I’m not really a film critic.
Sallah Shabati is one of those few films that have had such a strong impact on the culture that from the contemporary perspective, it becomes difficult to discern to what extent the film is imitating or lambasting its world and to what extent our collective memory of that world has been shaped by the film itself. Given the circumstances of its creation–no film industry to speak of, the country barely staying afloat–it’s hard to quite pin it down. But I’ll give it a try or at least to explain why it is difficult.
Israel, 110 minutes. Golan Productions. Written and directed by Efraim Kishon. Starring Haim Topol, Geula Nuni, Arik Einstein and Shraga Friedman.
Sallah arrives with his large (and growing) family from an undisclosed Arab country to Israel. Somehow he figures out that the government housing project, called “shikun” (שיכון) is the good place to live and tries to get housing there. Despite his attempts, he is sent to the “maabarot” (מעברות) –temporary dwellings erected by the state until proper shikunim can be made available. He tries half-heartedly to work but ends up just playing shesh-besh (backgammon) with his Ashkenazi neighbor. In his struggle for the 1000 lira that he needs in order to get a shikun he butts heads with everyone from the neighboring kibbutz to corrupt politicians. He tries to get a mohar (“bride price”) for his daughter, only to have to pay it back for his son to get married. In the end, the only thing that works is for him to protest being moved into the shikun–on the principal that you never get what you want, only what you don’t want.
Cinematically, the first thing that strikes the viewer of Sallah is its complete lack of style. The shots are effective but for the most part not beautiful. Given the Israeli mentality of that era, one is tempted to believe that a full de-stylization of the cinema would have fit the prevailing Zionist-socialist mindset. It would be interesting to see how the social realism pioneered by Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko was accepted by the cinematic community of the extremely leftist early state of Israel. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about it.
Perhaps the destylization was ideological or perhaps it is just evidence of inexperience. Kishon had never before made a film–and unlike Charles Laughton (see The Night of the Hunter), who had starred in over 50 films before he tried his hand at directing–Kishon had no idea how it’s done. In an interview released with the DVD version of Sallah, he says that when he first got to the set he asked everyone, “Does anyone know how to make a film?” No one knew, so he began “the way an intelligent person would do it:” he sketched storyboards for each scene and took it from there. In the interview, Kishon shows the original notebooks that they used to plan the film. We see the script and the sketched scenes alongside them. It is very interesting to compare these with the similar notebooks that Yasujiro Ozu and Koga Noda made when they wrote all of their films. Selections from them are reprinted in Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films and their (at least external) similarity to Kishon’s seem to vindicate the latter”s claim that there’s really only one “intelligent” way to make a film.
The film is a comedy and as such, it offers us the chance to discuss some of the general features of the genre much as we did with horror and The Night of the Hunter. At the heart of comedy lies the following problem. The things which happen to the people on screen are, for the most part, horrible. We might even call them tragic (using the term casually). And yet, we are supposed to find them funny and enjoyable to see. In Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Alfred Hitchcock made a film which, though well veneered with light-hearted comedy, had such a powerful and disturbing undercurrent that it overpowered the overtly comic element; thus returning the film to Hitchcock’s home territory–insanity, violence, the way two people can take romantic love and…well, I guess you’ll just have to see it to find out.
Many of the most successful comedies (Chaplin, Keaton) show events that in any other context would be considered awful–when buildings fall on people or when trains derail and plummet into a river it’s really much more awful than funny. One of the main jobs of the comic director is to make sure that you are involved enough in the story to keep watching but not involved in a way that you sense the horror of what’s going on in the film’s world. Keaton and Chaplin exploited a tradition of clowning–by looking different and acting oddly, they let the viewer relate to them as not-quite-human characters. But in Sallah Shabati, the hero is a very real character (half the country acts like him to this day!) and his tribulations become increasingly realistic as the film progresses.
At the beginning of the film, Sallah is more or less a clown. He explains to the driver that the old lady traveling with them must be a relative, (she came all this way, what else could she be?) He tells the housing bureau that he is a shoe-maker (after seeing the shoe-maker in front of him get sent to shikun) but that he’s never actually done it before (a recurring joke in the film). But as the story progresses he becomes less like a clown and more like Job. In a scene that is more acerbic than funny, he is fired from his tree-planting job after protesting the fact that the government sold the same forest to multiple donors. Incapable of introspection and unwilling to compromise on his principles, he is reduced to a truly pathetic state. This culminates in a scene in the rain where he calls out to the Lord, begging for a miracle to save him. Though it fits the comic narrative (a poster for the elections is immediately lit by a lightening bolt, leading him to another bungled attempt at making money via selling his vote), the reality of the scene makes it painful to watch. No longer happy-go-lucky and clueless, our clownish hero is dirty and broken.
And in true tragic fashion, it is unavoidable–both he and the system under which he suffers lack the adaptability/insight necessary to make things right. After things are at their absolute worst, the story is turned around by an absurd ploy in which Sallah and co. protest against being moved into the shikunim. This brings the authorities against them (nod nod wink wink) and they are forced to move into the shikunim. This whole subplot is so absurd, so sloganistic (“you never get what you want, always what you don’t want” is the oft repeated maxim) that it stands in stark relief to the painful realism of the rest of the film. I understand this as an artificial attempt to make a tragedy into a comedy. The world that has been created onscreen has proven itself as being purely antagonistic towards Sallah. But few films as bleak as the first two thirds of Sallah are successful at speaking to anyone aside from the usual group of cinephiles (and Japanese)–so another fantasy world is tacked on to save him.
One gets the sense that Kishon’s worldview is ultimately one of pessimistic despair, a sort of victimization. Unlike Mizoguchi (who often dealt with very similar themes) he tries to dress it in comedy to make it more palatable. But the result is uneven at best. I disagree with the 1965 NY Times review which derides Sallah’s jests as “old.” The film has many really funny moments. Its percentage of funny screen time far surpasses such “classics” as The Producers or Blazing Saddles in which the repeatability of a handful of jokes is supposed to compensate for the other hour and a half of feeling like you’re supposed to be laughing but not. But, unlike films like To Be or Not to Be (1942, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), in which every element from the pacing, to the characters, to the overall plot and sentiment contribute to a unique and powerful comic atmosphere, Sallah Shabati leaves the viewer confused. I’m made to love this character, for his charm, his unique morality–and then I see how what I love in him is the very thing that destroys him.
I don’t mean to say that tragedy and comedy can never coincide. Tragicomedy, black comedy–on the surface these might seem to be equivalent to what I find lacking in Sallah. But there is a significant difference. Black comedy (and tragicomedy if I understand what it is) takes a situation and shows how the same incongruities which make it tragic can also be seen to make it funny. In Sallah, one might be tempted to say the same thing. The plight of the Sephardic immigrants in the 1950s was really bad but through the character of Sallah we can see that there was a humorous side to it as well and, through that, we can process the trauma and move on. But in a certain sense, the film goes full circle and returns us to the tragedy from which we began thus undermining whatever new perspective we may have gained. Perhaps that was the film’s intention, to sucker us in with a lovable character and then make us really feel the immigrants’ pain by showing him humiliated.
One of the responses that I got from my first review was: “How do you know that he really had this stuff in mind when he made the film?” That is one of the most central questions when it comes to analyzing this or any other work of art. With Laughton it was clear. The whole film had such a continuity of style, the apparent themes were carried so masterfully by the acting, the photography, the music and the script, that there was little doubt that he had some ideas in his head and was doing his best to communicate them. But with Kishon, I really don’t know. Was the film meant to be read two or three layers deep? Or was it meant to be a good laugh that took a couple of stabs at the establishment but ultimately got derailed by its own inner logic?
So if I had to sum up my opinion bottom line: the film is really funny, it successfully skewers a whole host of 50s Israeli institutions but the amateurish style and the ultimate dissonance between the story and how it is told keep it from being a true comic masterpiece.
PS: I found this Chinese television site with a really funny synopsis of the film. When you see how little they understood the situation of the film, it gives you a hint on how the world can be so clueless about so many other aspects of the modern middle east. Be sure to check out the mms trailer!