Under the Domim Tree (Eli Cohen)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

A fine, affecting melodrama marred only by a facile courtroom conclusion and a preposterously sunny denouement, Under the Domim Tree is, I believe, the first film both set and shot in Israel that I've ever seen, reminding me once again of how much I still have to learn about world cinema. Then again, despite the comparatively (to the average American viewer, at any rate) "exotic" locale, and the grim shadow of the Holocaust -- set in 1953, it's the story of Jewish children, mostly Poles, orphaned by the Final Solution -- there isn't much here that isn't familiar from any number of well-told coming-of-age stories from around the globe. Bitter rivalry, blossoming romance, secrets revealed, late-night cathartic re-enactments of frantic flight from the Nazis (whoops, maybe that is unique to this particular story)...you know the drill. It's somehow comforting to know that teenagers everywhere, even those who narrowly escaped being brutally murdered and who lost their homes and families, have more or less the same problems. Mostly anecdotal, and to good effect, the film suffers when its various narrative threads converge, towards the end, in the dilemma of one girl who insists that the man and woman who claim to be her parents are strangers to her; potentially a powerful subject, it's handled like a mediocre "Perry Mason" episode. And the conclusion fairly glows with an treacly optimism that the film hasn't remotely earned. Still, until about the last reel or so, it's an absorbing and often moving story, extremely well-acted and directed in a competent and appropriately low-key manner by Eli Cohen. I should also note that it's apparently something of a sequel to the acclaimed The Summer of Aviya, which I haven't yet seen.