Israel, like the United States, owes most of its progress and success to immigrants and the children of immigrants. There’s another similarity: The newest ones through the gate routinely get the short end of the stick.
It would be ironic if it weren’t so costly and embittering, as Israeli director Renen Schorr’s crackling military prison drama “The Loners” repeatedly reminds us.
“The Loners” screens in the Hartford Jewish Film Festival.
Inspired by events that occurred in 1997, “The Loners” centers on a pair of Russian-born soldiers serving in a Golan Heights unit. Young, inexperienced Sasha gets the news he’s been accepted into the officers training program, and takes his older, world-wise friend Glori into town to celebrate.
We don’t learn all the details until late in the film, but Sasha (a callow and conflicted Anton Ostrovsky) loses his rifle and Glori (wiry and tough Sasha Agrounov, in a Ophir-winning performance) covers for him by taking a replacement from the armory. When the original weapon is traced to a fatal Hamas attack, and grenades and ammunition are also discovered missing, the duo are arrested, swiftly convicted of selling arms and tossed in a military prison.
They’re guilty of certain infractions, but assuredly not peddling guns to the enemy. That would be enough to merit our sympathy, but there’s also the small detail that it’s the two of them against the world.
Going back decades, Israeli journalists and filmmakers have exposed a pattern of discrimination by Ashkenazis against Sephardic and Falasha Jews. But it comes as a shock, frankly, to see Ashkenazis—including a young and especially brutal prison officer who’s Russian himself—denigrating, humiliating and abusing their Russian comrades.
Yes, it has something to do with the despicable crime that Sasha and Glori have been convicted of, but we also detect a wide, ugly streak of xenophobia.
Meanwhile, the duo’s request for a retrial has been summarily dismissed, and they’re about to be bounced out of the military and into a civil prison. So we completely empathize when Glori rebels and on the spur of the moment—with Sasha’s sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes reluctant help—seizes their prison ward. Holding two officers and a now-cheering bunch of fellow prisoners hostage, the pair demand a retrial.
“The Loners” is a sharp-eyed study in loyalty, honor and integrity, with those qualities concentrated almost entirely on one side. Glori and Sasha have a worthwhile cause; the Israel Defense Forces, at least with respect to its internal affairs, toils in the service of discipline, sovereignty and secrecy.
It’s not until a general arrives to manage the hostage crisis that the IDF is depicted with anything remotely resembling compassion or character. And let’s just say that his word isn’t exactly gold.
Glori and Sasha’s David-and-Goliath battle propels “The Loners” forward, but the heart of the film lies in the relationship between the two men. At the outset, we think they’re friends. But we come to see they’re so different—Glori is fiercely self-sufficient, while Sasha is soft and ambivalent—that their bond derives not from a shared background and language but from their common isolation.
Nobody in their unit befriends them, so they have only each other. That fuels resentment along with affection, Glori for feeling he has to continually protect Sasha and the younger man for being an unwilling participant in Glori’s instinctive, hair-trigger plan.
Intentionally or not, “The Loners” ultimately doesn’t aspire to make a grand statement. It leaves us to ponder, instead, what a nation owes its adopted citizens.
Michael Fox is a freelance film critic.
“The Loners” will screen at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, April 3 at K&G Theatres Bloomfield 8 in Bloomfield. For information visit hjff.org or call (860) 231-6316.