This is one impressionistic film. Impressionistic films deserve your attention and concentration, they should not be watched while you empty the dishwasher and work on your podcast. Alas, that’s how I watched this film, so my appreciation of it, or lack thereof, is coloured by my wavering attention.
Carmel is an impressionistic collage about the director and his views on Israel, its existence and the conflicts that have threatened it, and his relationship to those things. Some viewers have called it frustrating but, having seen a lot of impressionistic cinema at this point in my life, it’s no more “frustrating” than any other impressionistic feature-length film. The bigger question for me is whether or not it’s effective.
And I’m not sure it is. Gitai assumes some knowledge of the situation in Israel, which is fine, as well as some knowledge of Israel’s conflict with the Romans, which is less fine. But, significantly, he also assumes the audience cares about his own personal feelings and his memories more than we do about Israel, or well developed characters. (When reviewers call this film “deeply personal,” they aren’t kidding. This is one of those films where the writer cannot get himself out of his movie.) And he also assumes that we want to listen to poetry readings, some in very stagey situations.
I’m not sure either of these assumptions was a good one, and the audience is left without someone to connect with, to be our ambassador into this man’s impressions of his native country and its situation in the world. I find it trying reading subtitles of poetry and journal entries and letters, much more trying than subtitles in another setting. (I should note I have enjoyed films with poetry readings in other languages more than this one.)
Maybe if I had seen this in a theatre when I could have concentrated better, something important would have revealed itself to me, and I would have cared. But watching this at home, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about this other person’s very personal film. Had it been a little less centered around his impressions, I might have found something here.