Cannes Review: 'Rock the Casbah'

It's going to take a lot more than a movie to level-up the peace process between Israel and Palestine, but Yair Horowitz' striking new film "Rock the Casbah" ranks quite high on the list that succinctly expresses just how difficult and intractable the situation is. While it does dip its toe into a maudlin pool on more than one occasion, it also exudes the punk rock attitude implied in its title, ensuring that the film is dynamic - dare I say entertaining - and not just depressing.

It's 1989, the first Intifada, and a busload of young IDF grunts are billeted on the Gaza Strip. Their cut-from-marble commander (Angel Bonnani) quickly lays out the rules. They are entering the city to calm things down. Things will be "back to normal in two or three weeks." The blue magazines have rubber bullets, the red ones are real. They are only to switch to red after a series of explicit transgressions occur. Anyone who has seen a film before can easily recognize Checkov's weapon and anyone who has read about urban guerrilla fighting knows the fog of war knows no checklist.

As the team recites their memorized pacification rules (fire in the air, then the legs, only then shoot to kill) they enter the city, removing PLO propaganda and literally stoking out fires. Some are more polite about it than others.

A common talking point about asymmetrical warfare is that one side has guns, the other merely rocks. "Rock the Casbah" shows how rocks hurled from a labyrinth of rooftops are more than just pests, especially when the hurlers are children and teens. "I don't need a dead kid on my conscious - you shoot!" is a particularly effective line.

In time the rocks are replaced with a washing machine - a bizarre image but nonetheless deadly for one of the infantrymen. Here's where "Rock the Casbah" segues into its more character-driven half, when four soldiers are stationed on the roof where the appliance was dropped. Our hero is Tomer (Yon Tumarkin) the melancholy pacifist, who seems to be reflecting from twenty years hence. There's also Aki (Roy Nik) a hot-head, Haim (Iftach Rave) something of a slob and group leader Ariel (Yotam Ishay) a philosopher on short time itching to get the hell out of Israel to marijuana-friendly Amsterdam. It is he who brings the radio, and the radio which brings the titular Clash song.

The Palestinian home they occupy is portrayed sympathetically. They claim no knowledge of the incident - not exactly true, but the implication is that they never condoned it. They have a moppety boy who is obsessed with playing around with the soldiers, much to his mother's consternation. This leads to a predictable but nonetheless tense moment where the boy gets his hands on live weapons.

"Rock the Casbah" takes side trips into the life of an IDF grunt, complete with dopey morale-boosting concerts and a peek at the Secret Service's interrogation techniques. Most striking is the moment when TK's character breaks reality to comment on his situation from the future. It isn't done with voice over, but a wistful, detailed monologue loaded with poetic imagery. The reaction from his pot smoking comrades work well for comedy, but this highlight resonates during the film's final violent reel.

"Rock the Casbah" is a tad frustrating if only because so much of it is so good. I wish Horowitz trusted his actors enough to expunge some on-the-nose dialogue and the folly of portentous slow motion. Given the world's outrage about the Israeli occupation of Gaza, it is essential to encourage films that do not demonize the individuals on either side of the conflict. This aspect, plus the truly nerve-racking fighting scenes, make this a film worth seeing and discussing.

SCORE: 7.3 / 10