Saint Clara

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Ari and Ori Sivan Folman

REVIEWED: 07-28-97

Lucy Dubinchik, Halil Elohev, Johnny Peterson, Maya Mayron, Israel Damidov, Ygal Naor, Joseph El Dror. (Not Rated, 85 min.)

Dateline: 1999, Haifa, Israel. At Golda Meir Junior High School, recent Russian émigré Clara Chabov (Dubinchik) has been accused by the school's perpetually crimson-suited Headmaster Tissona (Naor) of organizing an insidious cheating ring. It's not her fault, though: Clara's a 13-year-old psychic, and in pursuit of love and other worthy endeavors, she sees no reason not to give out upcoming test answers to her classmates. Although her mother assures her that she'll lose her powers once she falls in love, Clara isn't quite as certain. Yet she idly fends off the advances of class hooligan Eddie Tikel (Elohev) and bides her time, content to play havoc with the town's lottery now and again and studiously avoid the neo-political skirmishes of her post-pubescent contemporaries. Hardly your usual set-up, but then Saint Clara is anything but your usual summer fare. This debut feature from first-time Israeli directors Folman and Sivan is a surreal, riotous affair, bursting with a thousand shades of red (the opening shot of a Golda Meir statue silhouetted against a garishly lit window as a throbbing guitar chord screams on the soundtrack is as revelatory as Leftfield's propulsive techno in the first few moments of Shallow Grave -- it's a sudden, aural harbinger of the visual roller coaster to come) and a story unlike anything audiences have seen before. Not content to merely appropriate Hollywood-style schlock, Folman and Sivan have adapted their tale from the work of Czech novelist Pavel Kohout (who adapted the story from a screenplay written by his wife Jelena Machinova), and the result is a wisely bittersweet take on young love -- and the nature of love in general -- that hearkens back to the best of Truffaut as much as anything. Perhaps because of the film's unusually prescient casting (Dubinchik is a wonder as Clara, and her friends -- the hooligan played by Tikel, Peterson's skinhead revolutionary Rosy, and Mayron's Libby with her fighter pilot's goggles firmly in place -- are likewise audaciously inspired), Saint Clara is less of a film about children (though they make up a large percentage of the cast) than it is about human beings. The search for love, after all, has never been what you might call age-specific. Folman and Sivan then go on to add various surreal highlights to Saint Clara's atmospheric locales, such as the young lover's oddball nuclear families and some very outlandish bearers of Israeli teaching certificates (one hopes), to create an overall illusion of systematic scholastic anarchy. Nothing could be further from the truth -- these kids know exactly what time it is, even if the baffled adults do not. It may be occasionally disjointed in spots, but it's still an exhilarating and wildly passionate film debut. Saint Clara swept the Israeli version of the Academy Awards upon its release, and with good reason: As Tikel would say, "It's the shit." 3.5 stars

--Marc Savlov

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