An early episode in Esther reveals the deliberately atemporal tone of the film’s rote depiction of the titular character from the Old Testament as officers dispatched by King Ahasverus (Zare Vartinyan) on a mission to find the fairest maidens in the kingdom (among whom, one will replace the disfavored Queen Vashti) traverse an ancient hillside amid the odd ambient din of city traffic, automobile horns, and warbling emergency sirens. From the opening shot of a highly formalized, dynamic tableaux of King Ahasverus’ celebratory banquet in which assorted court entertainers advance toward the foreground or fall out of the bounds of the static frame as the opening passages from the Book of Esther are read by an off-camera narrator, the film conveys an inherent visual (and thematic) paradox through incongruent imagery that seem both highly stylized and ancient yet aesthetically natural and contemporary. The heroine of the Biblical story, Esther (Simona Benyamini), a woman of Jewish ancestry, and her sole remaining family, her uncle and guardian Mordecai (Mohammed Bakri), having settled in Shushan palace after being driven into exile by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, would, years later, captivate Ahasverus with her beauty and become his new queen. Advised by her uncle to conceal the secret of her race from the king, Esther – and in turn, her uncle – soon gain even greater favor from King Ahasverus when Mordecai uncovers a traitorous plot and uses Esther’s liberal access to the king in order to warn him of the danger. However, when the king’s faithful adviser Haman (Juliano Merr) becomes envious of Mordecai’s increasing influence over Ahasverus, he exploits the king’s trust and sparks a senseless and destructive protracted war of human will.
Esther is an alienating and rigorous, yet poetic and indelibly provocative exposition on the precarious interrelation between oppression and retribution, belief and self-righteousness, identity and exile. Amos Gitai juxtaposes contrasting dramatic forms (theater, Byzantine art, and film) and defies traditional filmic narrative convention in order to create a pervasive sense of underlying paradox and experiential disharmony that reflect the seemingly insoluble contemporary situation of the Arab-Israeli conflict: fourth wall direct address by a peripheral character narrator (Shmuel Wolf); interruptive stimuli through anachronistic sounds and images (motor cars, heavy equipment, mass transportation jackhammers, and jet engines) that intentionally detract from the sensorial immersion of perceived reality; the illuminating perspective shift, filmed in elegantly spare, but adept extended tracking sequence (and testament) of migration and displacement that concludes the film (in a sublime extended sequence that vaguely prefigures the vérité-like, parting image of Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry). Reminiscent of the lyrical and folkloric impressionism of Sergei Paradjanov (who, perhaps uncoincidentally, was an Armenian artist persecuted by Soviet authorities) fused with the blurred delineation between art and life that has characterized Kiarostami’s spare and contemplative nomadic cinema, the film is a thoughtful modern-day allegory on the erosive and inhuman cycle of vengeance, intolerance, persecution, and violence.
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