Four stars. Unrated, but akin to a PG-13 for strong war themes and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.16
While the rest of the country kvetches about racial disparity in the recently released Academy Award nominations — a “problem” that has everything to do with what is and isn’t put into production by Hollywood studios, and nothing at all to do with Academy voters — those who anguish about such things will find solace in one direction.
The short subjects categories are, and always have been, a richly international affair.
That’s particularly true with the 2015 nominees, which come from Palestine, Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, Austria, Kosovo, Ireland and even Russia.
In terms of quality and storytelling, the live-action nominees are uniformly excellent. They’re also politically heavy and, in three cases, quite grim and emotionally upsetting: as far as could be imagined from the cotton candy often found in Hollywood features.
I’ve always been drawn to short films, for the same reason that I seek out short stories: Bloated, 800-page novels forgive considerable authorial excess, whereas every single word must be perfect in an 12-page story.
Just as every frame must count, in a 12-minute short film.
The jewel in this year’s live action quintet is director Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, which takes an unexpectedly light-hearted look at one of the world’s worst geo-political hot spots. The story opens on the silent routine of five Palestinian nuns who live in a convent in the West Bank wilderness; their worship is interrupted by the arrival of a nervous Israeli settler family, whose car breaks down just outside the convent door.
A potentially tense situation — the elder Israeli woman immediately fears being killed — is stressed further by the Sabbath’s arrival, at which point the nuns are forbidden speech.
It’s difficult to imagine anybody successfully mining a gentle comedy from this premise, but that’s precisely what Khalil has accomplished. (He co-wrote the droll script with Daniel Yáñez Khalil.) The narrative moves in a marvelous direction, in great part due to the unexpectedly resourceful involvement of young Sister Marie (Maria Zriek).
It’s a perfect little package, right up to the final scene. And, let it be said, richly enlightening.