The ominous opening scenes of the Israeli drama “A Quiet Heart” neatly place several dynamics in motion at once.
Israeli writer-director Eitan Anner sets the stage for a contemporary parable of religious-secular conflict, a throwback thriller steeped in gothic claustrophobia and an ageless tale of female empowerment in a predatory urban setting.
Anner infuses “A Quiet Heart” — which will screen three times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — with an uneasy air of mystery while maintaining an air of repressed restraint. The script won him the best screenplay award at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival.
However, the moody trappings, while effective, can only go so far. Hampered by an underwhelming lead performance by Ania Bukstein that reduces the female protagonist’s journey from profoundly transformative to mildly satisfying, the film doesn’t fully deliver on its promise.
Bukstein plays Naomi, a tightly wound young woman who has fled a career, her parents’ home in Tel Aviv, and everyone and everything she knows to start over in Jerusalem. This is an act of desperation, plainly, but also an act of strength. Naomi is alone and isolated, yet appears equipped to handle the challenge.
Out of naiveté or a lack of options, she takes a decrepit apartment with an untrustworthy landlord in Kiryat Yovel, an observant neighborhood. Here Naomi is the prototypical outsider, a vulnerable object of suspicion, stereotyping and disrespect.
So she isn’t sure what to make of her neighbors across the hall, a strident single Orthodox mother with four (or is it five?) children. They seem friendly, but Naomi is understandably disturbed when the eldest boy, Shimon (Lior Lifshitz), repeatedly sneaks into her apartment to play the piano.
Naomi’s bête noir, though, is the local parking enforcement officer (Uri Gottlieb). He refuses to give Naomi a break and sees himself as the enforcer of neighborhood social and religious norms as well as city statutes.
“Either you leave or you pay,” he informs our vexed heroine, with the ripe portent of every good movie aphorism.
Naomi’s unhappiness, as she forges a routine and fends off the vaguely menacing men in her orbit, is reflected by a palette of washed-out blues and grays. Jerusalem has never looked so unpopulated and uninviting.
Accidentally, Naomi comes on an oasis in this desert: A monastery from which organ music emanates. Finally, she meets a decent guy, Brother Fabrizio (Giorgio Lupano), who develops into a kind of mentor.
The career that Naomi abandoned, you see, was a concert pianist, with its pressures and expectations. Fabrizio opens a door for Naomi to rediscover music as truth, soul, joy and self-expression. For its own sake, that is, without the weight of perfectionist impulses, peer judgements or parental approval.
His guidance allows Naomi to relinquish some of her rigidity in favor of improvisation, and to trade rigor for spontaneity. Fabrizio also offers a respite from the increasingly creepy goings-on in Naomi’s building.
“A Quiet Heart” (an enigmatic and ill-fitting title) eventually turns Naomi into an amateur sleuth, forcing her way out of her comfort zone. Though her performance earned the “Game of Thrones” regular a best actress nomination at the Israeli Oscars, Bukstein plays Naomi with a portrayal that alternates between tentative and confident, indecisive and self-aware. Given all of that, will the viewer be sufficiently touched by Naomi’s predicament to care about her fate?
The unfolding events certainly get under Naomi’s skin. “A Quiet Heart” works to the degree that the viewer gets inside her skin.