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'A Borrowed Identity' review: Arab-Israeli story that's human, not political

Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and Edna (Yael Abecassis) in

Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and Edna (Yael Abecassis) in the Israeli film "A Borrowed Identity." Credit: Strand Releasing / Eitan Riklis

The films of director Eran Riklis, notably "The Syrian Bride" (2004) and "The Lemon Tree" (2008), have been cited as moments when Israeli cinema broke out of its sentimental straitjacket and embraced stylistic realism. So it's odd that, at first, his latest, "A Borrowed Life," feels like an Israeli film circa 1989. The camerawork, the music, the characters, all feel slightly antique.

But like Riklis' more action-oriented "Zaytoun" (2012), "A Borrowed Identity" is a period piece and as such reflects its time and attitudes. That it begins around the time of the Lebanon War only exacerbates the dilemma faced by young Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), whose acceptance into the Hebrew-centric Jerusalem Art and Science Academy is seen as the salvation of his family. His father (Ali Suliman) has never risen above the job of fruit picker, thanks to his participation in anti-Israel protests in the '60s, and he expects his math-prodigy son to achieve everything he didn't.

But when Eyad falls in love with an Israeli, Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), it changes his life, and not necessarily for the better. It also affects his friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), who has muscular dystrophy and whose deteriorating condition provides a parallel for Eyad's fragile, outsider status in Israeli society.

Riklis is a director of enormous grace and handles the various character dynamics with sensitivity -- not just between Eyad and the egotistic Naomi, but between Eyad and Jonathan's mother, Edna (Yaël Abecassis). She loves Eyad for loving her son, and as a result is approving when Eyad appropriates Jonathan's identity so he can get work -- hence the "borrowed identity" of what is one of the worst titles in recent memory. Apparently, the original title -- "Dancing Arabs," from Sayed Kashua's novel -- was considered offensive, but that seems like an overreaction, especially in light of an inordinately delicate film. What Kashua was referring to was the expression "dancing at two weddings," or the seemingly irresolvable conflicts facing Israeli Arabs trying to reconcile Arab ethnicity with Israeli nationality. Seems innocuous enough.

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