Friday, October 18, 2013

Seven Minutes in Heaven: Love, Trauma, and Choices

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 18, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Reymond Amsalem and Eldad Prives in Seven Minutes in Heaven

Directed by Omri Givon in his first (and still only) feature, Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva dakot be gan eden, Israel, 2008) is a deceptively simple drama that melds dramatic realism with metaphysical and psychological drama to tell a powerful story of love and survival. We meet Galia (Reymond Amsalem, The Attack) at the hospital bed of her boyfriend Oren, roughly a year after the suicide bus bombing that left him in a coma and her badly burned. Galia’s memories of that morning, and the days leading up to it, are fragmentary and intermittent, and it is only after Oren finally dies that she begins to deal with her own pain. A new chapter of her life begins with the mysterious arrival of a necklace in the mail – one she at first barely recognizes as her own, and only later realizes she’d lost at the scene of the attack. With this small object as a touchstone, Galia is challenged to re-assemble and re-examine her recent past, and begin to live again in the present.

During her search for the paramedic who pulled her from the bus and ultimately saved her, she discovers that she was clinically dead for seven minutes before reviving (presumably the inspiration for the film’s title). Along the way, she meets another emergency volunteer who relates to her a mystical belief: when a soul is taken before its time, it is given the choice to return to earth, but only after being given glimpses of the life it will lead. Without giving too much away, those seven minutes are the metaphysical axis on which the narrative revolves.

Based on an original script by Givon, Seven Minutes in Heaven has the scope and slow, deliberate pacing of an ambitious short story. The film’s power comes from its tight focus on Galia’s point of view – Amsalem appears in every scene –  and its choice to tell a personal, rather than political, story. That narrative restraint pays off: Seven Minutes in Heaven tells a narrow story, but hardly a small one by any measure.

Amsalem’s subtle and realistic performance keeps the story grounded firmly in reality and undercuts the inescapable melodrama of the plot. Her portrayal is stunningly controlled: she inhabits Galia completely, playing out the character’s inner life with her whole body. Her physical discomfort and her spiritual ambivalence are evident, even in early scenes with little or no dialogue. Neither the actress nor the character overplays her emotional hand – Galia often seems as tightly wound up as the therapeutic ‘pressure suit’ she wears beneath her clothes (almost a year since the explosion and her burns are just beginning to heal on their own). Her depression, her continuing guilt over her boyfriend's death, even her small but significant moments of simple joy, play out before us upon Amsalem’s expressive face and eyes.

Reymond Amsalem as Galia, in Seven Minutes in Heaven
Galia is a refreshingly messy character: tough, self-centred, beautiful, and in many ways rather broken, even (it would seem) before the explosion. The few flashbacks to her pre-bombing life show a passive, even unreflective, observer on her own life, caught up in a relationship that she isn’t even sure she wants to be in, and an enigmatic, even frustrating personality, perhaps even to herself. In short, very very real.

Her boyfriend Oren (Nadav Netz) is essentially a non-presence, even before the attack. But Boaz (Eldad Prives), the gentle man who comes unto the scene just as Galia is capable of welcoming him, simply shines. He picks her up, makes her giggle, and seems, finally, to know her – scars, panic attacks, emotional ambivalence and all. Framed like a thriller, the middle sections of the film (which detail the burgeoning relationship between Boaz and Galia) play out like a sensitive, poignant love story, detailing flirtation in its entire awkward nuance: tender, joyous, simple. For all the tightness and weight that Galia carries upon her body, these flashes of real amusement and joy – like the moment when she suddenly realizes that Boaz is hitting on her – make her seemingly physically lighten, even float for a split second. 

The story sticks close to Galia, and only fills in the pieces of her backstory as she herself comes to them. But it is not only a subtle portrait of an individual’s life after a terrorist attack – the film also paints a vivid picture of contemporary Jerusalem, a city where such incidents are commonplace. (At the time of the filming, bus attacks were far more regular occurrences than they are today.) On the way to the film’s anguished and surprising conclusion, viewers experience life in contemporary Jerusalem in all of its mundane drama. But despite the bus attack which frames the plot, there isn’t a moment of politics in the film; the story it tells is an entirely personal and human one. Whether it is in conversation with emergency workers or civil functionaries, it is the human element that dominates every interaction Galia has. The details that the film offers testify to this odd reality where horror can be regular without every ceasing to be horrific: along with Galia, we meet a civil servant whose job it is to return items found at bomb sites (spending his days in a nondescript storeroom lined with charred cellphones, wallets, and bags), we visit a bus graveyard with exploded buses lined up like a nightmarish parking lot, we observe the complicated ties that form – in a split second – between rescuers and the rescued. The persistent threat of terrorist attack is simply a reality that life in Jerusalem seems to organize itself around a natural fact for the city’s residents: buses, it seems, sometimes blow up.

Told without platitudes or sentimentality, Seven Minutes in Heaven is a quiet, potent, and ultimately unforgettable story of survival. It is a film that will haunt you long after viewing.

This Sunday October 20 (4pm and 7:30pm), the Toronto Jewish Film Society is screening Seven Minutes in Heaven, at the Miles Nadal JCC in downtown Toronto. I will be on hand to introduce and lead a Q & A on the film.