You know you’re in trouble when a movie self-proclaims to “cry out” for all women who fall victim to female circumcision.
Yet that’s exactly how “God’s Sandbox” ends. The Israeli film, which examines the hideous practice still common in Africa and the Middle East, made the festival circuit last year and is set to open at the U.A. Galaxy Theater in San Francisco.
For fans of Israeli cinema, “God’s Sandbox” offers solid lead performances, sweeping views of the desert and a fascinating glimpse of Bedouin life. Beyond that, the film offers little more than an ineptly told tale of love, betrayal and culture clash.
The “sandbox” in question is the Sinai Desert, along with an adjacent beachfront resort. There, middle-aged writer Liz (Razia Israeli) tracks down her wayward daughter Rachel (Orly Perel), who is in full flirtation mode with handsome Arab bartender Mustafa (Sami Samir).
The mother-daughter relationship is clearly strained, though we don’t know exactly why. To ease the tension, Mustafa tells a story about something that happened on that very beach years before.
Back then, a tribe of Israeli hippies set up camp. At their center, blond beauty Leila (Meital Duan), a free spirit who sought out a new lover every night. Her searching ceases when she eyes Najim (Juliano Merr) the dashing son of a Bedouin sheik.
The two launch a torrid love affair that feeds on itself. But when Leila accompanies Najim to his Bedouin home, she finds herself less than welcome. Worse, she witnesses the horrific ritual circumcision of a young Bedouin girl, held down by other women as a tribal matriarch wields her scary little blade.
As Mustafa tells the story, the narrative bounces between past and present, and it doesn’t take long (about 20 seconds actually) to figure out Liz and Leila are one and the same person.
Najim’s father forbids the couple to wed. When Najim insists, he is banished. The outcast couple flees across the desert, hiding in caves and bathing in hidden pools. There is something resonant in such biblical imagery, further augmented when a tribal elder tracks the couple down and tries to murder Leila with a poisonous snake.
Ultimately, she is drugged, kidnapped and returned to the Bedouin camp where she is similarly forced to endure the nightmare of circumcision — same matriarch, same scary blade — from which she seems not to fully recover. Is it punishment? Is it an act of purification to make her an acceptable wife? We never find out.
The rest of the tale is best left unrevealed here, but suffice to say what passes for dramatic irony is actually an emotionally limp and unsatisfying ending.
One cannot fault the actors, all of whom ably juggle their attending sorrows and secrets. Duan is a particularly fetching heroine, while Merr is convincing as the tent-raised nomad who defies his heritage for a forbidden love.
But director Doron Eran and screenwriters Yoav Halevy and Hanita Halevy leave too much unexplained, asking the audience to buy into a romance that defies credulity. Why would a free-loving hippie fall for a guy whose culture oppresses women and slices off their genitalia? Seems like a relationship stumbling block not even Dr. Phil could fix.
Female circumcision is a serious problem, one well worth addressing onscreen. Unfortunately, “God’s Sandbox” fails both as advocacy art and straightforward cinematic drama. While the burgeoning Israeli film industry is worth supporting, the work will have to be better than this to keep up the cheers.
“God’s Sandbox” opens Friday, Aug. 19, at the UA Galaxy Theater, 1285 Sutter, S.F. Information: (415) 474-2849