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Israeli director hopes to make a bang at Oscars

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 (JTA) — “In the old Hollywood movies, the underdog always won. I’ve got to believe than can still happen,” says Joseph Cedar, sitting in the lobby of a cheap hotel in mid-town Los Angeles that is frequented by young Israelis and artistic types of other nationalities.

Cedar, 32, lean and intense with a yarmulke perched on his close-cropped hair, is the writer and director of “Time of Favor,” Israel’s contender in this year’s Oscar race for best foreign film.

Forty-five other countries have entered their best films. Only five will be nominated as Oscar finalists at precisely 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 13.

Cedar doesn’t have a budget for splashy ads in the Hollywood trade papers, like Taiwanese frontrunner “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” He has few influential contacts and, as a first-time director, no track record.

What he does have is a burning conviction that “Time of Favor” is a gripping, timely movie with universal appeal, whose quality will make it the first Israeli film in 16 years to win a spot among the five final nominees. Only four Israeli films have made it that far in the last 50 years, and none has ever won an Oscar.

Sunset Boulevard is littered with the shattered dreams of hopeful young film makers, but Cedar’s fervent faith is buoyed by powerful reviews.

The New York Times recently devoted the front page of its art section to an article on “Time of Favor.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that at a mid-January screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the buzz about “Time of Favor” was so intense that more than 100 fans clamoring to get into the sold-out screening were left outside.

“Time of Favor” — or “Hahesder,” (“The Arrangement”) as the film is known in Hebrew — has a number of factors working in its favor. Among them are fine performances by some of Israel’s top actors, a combination of low-key romance and nerve-tingling action, an authentic insider’s portrayal of Israel’s settler community, and a plot that appears ripped from today’s headlines on the turbulent Middle East — or the potential nightmare headlines of tomorrow.

The film is set in an isolated West Bank settlement, surrounded by the stark Judean hills and desert. The head of the settlement’s yeshiva is charismatic Rabbi Meltzer — played in a bravura performance by film-maker Asi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan and a fervently secular leftist — who foresees the time when Jerusalem’s Temple Mount will be cleared of Muslims and restored to Jewish hands.

Meltzer has convinced the army to establish an all-Orthodox unit attracting the finest yeshiva students, who will form the “spearhead” — for what purpose is unclear.

Commanding the unit is Menachem, played by hunky Aki Avni, who is both Orthodox and a professional soldier. Among his men is the frail Pini (Edan Alterman), who has the making of a brilliant Talmudist and whom Meltzer wants to marry his daughter Michal, played by an Israeli actress named Tinkerbell.

Independent-minded Michal is instead attracted to Menachem. Menachem is equally drawn to her but, in loyalty to Pini and the rabbi, he rebuffs her.

Distraught over Michal’s rejection and convinced that the rabbi’s futuristic vision calls for direct action, Pini plots to blow up the Muslim Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Israel’s Shin Bet security service is tipped off and, fearful that an attack on the shrine would ignite the entire Muslim world, works feverishly to forestall the explosion. The secret servicemen think Menachem is one of the plotters, but they can’t foil the plot without his help.

The realization that such a deranged attempt is conceivable — and the consequences if it succeeds — is what gives the film’s climax its special edge.

Adding to the film’s poignancy is Cedar’s personal background.

Cedar was born into a modern Orthodox family in New York. In 1973, when he was five, his geneticist father and drama-psychotherapist mother made aliyah.

The family settled in the Bayit Vegan section of Jerusalem, dominated at the time by the national religious adherents of Gush Emunim. When he reached army age in 1986, Joseph served with an Israeli paratroop unit, where he was one of only three religious soldiers.

After his discharge, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the Hebrew University and a graduate degree from New York University’s film school.

When he started writing “Time of Favor” in 1995, Cedar moved to a West Bank settlement north of Ramallah. His friends in the settlement and in the wider Orthodox community had high hopes for his project.

“They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are,” Cedar recalls.

As the screenplay evolved, however, it gradually moved away from the initial idea of a vehicle for the national religious movement’s viewpoint.

“I came to believe that the central question of the film was how much an individual must sacrifice for the good of a group or to advance a cause,” Cedar says. “It’s a question now facing Israeli society, and I don’t know the answer. Like the film itself, I have more questions than answers.”

Cedar and his wife, journalist Vered Kelner, have been in Los Angeles since early December, trying to create a Hollywood “network” from scratch.

“I’ve called everybody I know, and then the people they referred me to, anything to give the film some exposure,” Cedar says.

“Time of Favor” has been screened in many “beautiful homes in Beverly Hills,” he says, and has circulated among people in “the industry.” The reaction, Cedar says, has been that “finally here is an Israeli film that has a chance to be nominated for an Academy Award.”

So far, like most foreign language films, “Time of Favor” hasn’t found an American distributor. Cedar hopes this will change if the film is nominated for an Oscar. It is due to be screened at the Israeli Film Festival in New York on Feb. 22, and in Los Angeles on March 27.

Meanwhile, Cedar has attracted enough attention that American and foreign producers are asking about his next project.

It will be a comedy, mainly about Jewish fundraising, he says.

“After five years of getting this film off the ground, I’ve become an expert on fundraising,” he says.

While he waits for the results of the Academy vote, Cedar’s mood fluctuates.

“I’m afraid to be too optimistic — you know, provoking the Evil Eye,” he says. “But I will be deeply disappointed if I don’t make it.”

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