Fourteen-year-old Zion (Reuven Badalov) does not have an easy time. He lives with his divorced mother (Ronit Elkabetz) and his three-year older brother Meir (Ofer Hayun) in a stuffy, cramped apartment in the slums of the Israeli city of Haifa. He only speaks to his father sporadically when he calls a pay phone further down the road. Zion has a love-hate relationship with his brother. Just like his mother, by the way, who sometimes has no idea what to do with the sullen, stubborn Meir. He calls her a whore – which is not even a lie – and threatens to exchange his current hopeless situation for an even more miserable environment: crime. Zion is much more introverted, more of a thinker than a doer. For the time being, he can still rely on his brother, even though the two also regularly clash with each other. But an incident with fatal consequences puts the two brothers’ relationship on edge.
Israeli writer-director Eran Merav made his debut with Zion and His Brother (2009). He follows a tried-and-tested concept: a dysfunctional family that has to make ends meet. The relationship between the two teenage brothers is central. When Zion can’t find his expensive sneakers on the beach after a few hours in the sea, he is at his wits end. The next day he sees the Ethiopian immigrant Salomon walking with his shoes at school. He tells his brother and together they visit the boy in the evening. The fierce Meir goes wild and in an oppressive chase, poor Salomon comes to a tragic end. The brothers decide not to talk about that evening anymore, but something is brewing under the skin. With both. Meir is becoming even more unmanageable than he already was and especially Eli (Tzahi Grad), the car dealer with whom his mother has a relationship, experiences this firsthand. Zion must also believe it, because Meir is terrified that he will open his mouth about what happened that particular evening.
“Zion and His Brother” takes place in a gloomy setting, which has a neo-realistic appearance. The comparison with Gus Van Sant’s ‘Paranoid Park’ (2007) is not to be missed: just like the skateboarder Alex (Gabe Nevins) in that film, the modest Zion more or less accidentally witnesses a fatal accident (and plays in both films a train plays a crucial role), which begins to eat at him. Another parallel is the boy’s home situation and the budding romantic / sexual feelings for a young girl (played by Liya Lein in “Zion and His Brother”). This debut film by Eran Merav is therefore not very original in terms of setup, but the performance is remarkably little to criticize. The story is carried by the actors, who are all excellent in their roles. The two young brothers are particularly impressive: the rebellious, charismatic, brooding Hayun and the more introverted Badalov, of the “still waters, deep soils” type. Their feelings, frustrations and unrest cut deep into your soul.
Although emotions run high at times, the film never gets sentimental. At its best, “Zion and His Brother” even knows how to move, for example in the intimate conversations between mother and son. Modest yet powerful debut by a promising young Israeli director!