Nuanced lens on homelessness from Israeli-born director

Movies are almost always fueled by conflict and propelled by the hero’s obstacles. “Time Out of Mind,” Oren Moverman’s sensitive study of a homeless, aging New Yorker played by Richard Gere, is the rare film that’s carried on a current of compassion.

“In my mind, compassion is a very Jewish trait,” the Israeli American writer-director said. “The movie is very much about being aware of others and tzedakah, which is a very important part of being Jewish.”

“Time Out of Mind” isn’t a mean-streets social-issue film, or an indictment of indifferent bureaucrats and self-obsessed urbanites. It operates on the humanist principle that everyone has their reasons, so we ought to try to understand their behavior rather than judge it.

To that end, Moverman carefully avoids provoking guilt or pity in order to allow the viewer to respond directly to the characters.

Oren Moverman

“From the beginning, we wanted to have a different approach in doing drama,” the New York-based filmmaker explained during an interview in San Francisco, where he screened “Time Out of Mind” at the International Film Festival earlier this year. The film opens this week in San Francisco.

His aim in the film was to leave audiences with a more sophisticated appreciation for not only the homeless but the social services world. “How are we going to look at people differently now that we’ve seen one story?

“I would love to think that ties into the philosophy of tikkun olam, and whoever saves the life of one person saves all humanity,” the filmmaker said.

Faith is peripheral in “Time Out of Mind,” which unfolds in a big city where people help Gere’s character out of moral impulses — or simple kindness — that may or may not derive from their religious beliefs. But it was a point of discussion between the secular Jewish filmmaker and the Buddhist actor.

“We did talk about religion, because at a fundamental level — when you take aside the practices and the rituals and the set of beliefs that are at the top of it — every religion has an approach to charity, to the poor, to people who are in need, ” Moverman said, adding that he  and Gere were in sync that the story transcend a particular place and moment.

“I’ve been doing some research about Jewish approaches to homelessness, and you start looking [at] every single thing that’s happening [in the Bible] and it has to do with displacement, from being banished from the Garden of Eden to being 40 years in the desert,” Moverman noted. “The idea of a roof over your head, a place to call home — even if temporary like Sukkot — has a connection that I wasn’t thinking about.”

Moverman is an expatriate, though hardly a refugee: He was born in Israel, but lived in the United States in his teens. After moving back to Israel for his military service, he returned to the States to pursue a film career.

He wrote and directed two excellent character-driven dramas starring Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger” and “Rampart,” in addition to serving as screenwriter and producer on other independent films. He produced Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s comedy thriller “Oppenheimer Strategies,” filmed earlier this year in New York and starring Gere in a very Jewish performance. It opens next year.

Moverman avoids explicit messages in his films, but says he intended “Time Out of Mind” to encompass not only those who lost their homes but people whose homes have been taken away from them.

In one scene, the owner of a restaurant allows Gere’s character and a homeless acquaintance played by Ben Vereen to use the bathroom, then offers them food. Arabic music is playing, and the Palestinian flag is visible in the background. At another point, Vereen’s character sings “Hinei ma tov …” as he drifts off screen. The point isn’t underlined, but the film is enriched for those who recognize the tune and get the reference.

“Time Out of Mind” opens Sept. 11, a significant date in New York and around the country. But Moverman only sees a positive association.

“It’s a day when we think about other people, and that’s what the movie tries to do,” he said.

“Time Out of Mind” screens at the Opera Plaza Cinema, S.F. (121 minutes, unrated)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.