The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for decades, with no end in sight. Fed up with one failed deal after another, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree to settle things once and for all … with a soccer match.
One game. One winner. The losing side has to pick up and find a new homeland.
Casting is superb, with longtime Israeli film legend Moshe Ivgy as the gruff, cigar-chomping chairman of the Israeli Soccer Federation squaring off against “Arab Labor” star Norman Issa as the beleaguered, Alka Seltzer-chugging chair of the Palestinian team — a team that, par for the course, has virtually no players.
And where is the momentous game to be held? Portugal, of course. As the stuffy FIFA president explains to a bevy of journalists, England is off-limits because of the Mandate business, and Germany, well, it would be unseemly for Germany to decide the fate of the Jewish people.
Portugal, on the other hand, has no politics, as the hapless stadium manager explains to his wife, who is ironing the family laundry during the interview while her husband pores through a world atlas looking for Israel. “It’s so small!” he exclaims, when he finally finds it.
The mockumentary tone works beautifully in this context, as interview subjects deadpan their way through very serious issues. The film’s dark humor is found in the contrast. What are the Gaza tunnels for? Sneaking in foreign ringers for the Palestinian team, of course. Isn’t the Palestinian team’s chairman worried that he has no players? Not at all, he replies confidently, “The Arab world will rally to our cause.” (As it has so often before.)
The characters in this film are simply marvelous, from the two starring roles — Issa’s performance won him the 2015 Israeli Oscar for best supporting actor, and he and Ivgy shared the best actor award at the 2016 Haifa International Film Festival — to the burly, head-scratching manager of the soccer stadium in Portugal.
But there are other great characters as well, notably: the German coach of the Israeli team, who has some kind of spiritual breakdown after a team-building visit to Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem; the Israeli Arab player for Team Israel who keeps shooing Arab kids away from his fancy sports car (“They’ll steal everything if you don’t watch them,” he confides to the interviewer); and the earnest broadcast journalist who frames the entire story from his perch atop the Mount of Olives, played by Michael Greenspan, who, in a joke within a joke, actually was CNN’s Mideast correspondent through much of the 1980s.
The audience is carried merrily along as joke follows improbable joke, and then … the tone begins to change.
As the big day draws nearer, tensions rise and tempers get short. Ivgy and Issa start to lose their bravado, and bicker more bitterly (always in Hebrew, versus the English they use when they’re trying to be civil) as the realization dawns on them, at last, that this is really happening. The weight of their people’s future lies squarely on their shoulders. They look each other in the eye, knowing that one of them will be a hero, and the other — the architect of his people’s doom.
Who wins? You won’t learn that here. Go see the movie.