Holocaust survivor, terrorist face off in hostage drama

In a crowded Melbourne bakery on a seemingly ordinary day in a quiet Jewish neighborhood, every cellphone suddenly starts ringing.

Everyone vanishes in an instant, except an elderly woman named Ulah who may well be the last person in town without a mobile phone. On the way home, she quizzically looks up at the helicopter buzzing overhead but is essentially indifferent to whatever drama is playing out in her vicinity.

Until, that is, she’s accosted at knifepoint outside her building by a bearded young man with a Middle Eastern accent, who forces himself into her apartment. He’s clearly on the run.

Sadiq, a terrorist on the run, with his elderly Jewish hostage, Ulah, in the Austrailian film “Last Dance“ photo/courtesy ifm films

The hostage drama at the center of the engrossing and ultimately shattering 2012 Australian film “Last Dance” is a great deal more complicated than the typical captor-captive situation. In short order it’s revealed that Ulah is a Holocaust survivor and her accoster, Sadiq, a Palestinian fleeing a suicide attack in the area.

The viewer fully expects these “natural enemies” to sooner or later step out from behind their polarized constructs of identity and experience and find common ground. The question is how credible, cliché-free and convincing their journey will be.

To its great credit, “Last Dance” patiently deepens into a satisfying saga of empathy and judgment trumping political cant and ethnic prejudice. That is, up to a point.

“Last Dance” screens Monday, Feb. 17 at the Vogue Theatre in San Francisco, in the Mostly British Film Festival.

Provoked by the array of Judaica on display in Ulah’s living room, Sadiq (Firass Dirani) launches into an anti-Semitic tirade. Our initial impression is of a loathsome lout who has been fed a diet of propaganda and likely has never spoken to a Jew.

It is inevitable that Sadiq and Ulah (Julia Blake) debate the justifications and circumstances that led to Israel’s founding, the displacement of Palestinians and the current situation. Writer-director David Pulbrook and co-writer Terrence Hammond thankfully keep the monologues to a minimum, recognizing that speeches are helpful for defining characters but rarely change viewers’ positions.

It turns out that Sadiq’s family suffered terribly at the hands of the Israeli army. It’s not cut and dried, though: The soldiers were defending themselves from rooftop snipers, but one might say they responded by hitting the building with excessive force.

Our sympathy for Sadiq’s plight increases when he confesses to being unable to pull the cord on his suicide bomb. His humanity and character outweigh his fanaticism, even though it takes him a while to stop seeing his non-act as cowardice.

In fact, Sadiq was part of a two-man suicide mission, and his partner detonated his explosives belt, injuring and killing Jews and launching a piece of metal into Sadiq’s chest. Ulah was a nurse, which may make this Sadiq’s lucky day, after all.

Alas, whoever recruited and dispatched him isn’t exactly elated when Sadiq calls to report he’s alive. We realize before Sadiq does that the last thing they want is the police capturing him.

“Last Dance” largely disdains the tension of whether cops or terrorists are going to knock on Ulah’s door first. It turns out to be her nosy neighbor across the hall, himself an elderly Jew.

Ulah’s daughter also calls from time to time, raising the possibility that she, too, may make an unannounced visit.

To the degree Ulah and Sadiq can navigate an end to the situation — despite the prying and snooping of outside parties — “Last Dance” suggests, perhaps unintentionally, a metaphor for the latest iteration of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The film’s most intriguing aspect, perhaps, is the way it subtly conveys and critiques the authority of the state. “Last Dance” invokes associations with the Third Reich (German shepherds, for example), to suggest the zero-tolerance attitude of even democratic nations in the post-9/11 era.

“Last Dance” screens at 9:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17 at the Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F. In English and Arabic. (Unrated. 89 minutes) 

The Mostly British Film Festival is also screening “Nicky’s Family,” a documentary about an Englishman who saved hundreds of children before the outbreak of World War II, at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16. www.mostlybritish.org