A conflicted smuggler serves as moral compass in apocalypse

Dystopian drama ‘Autonomies’ stands on its own at NY Jewish Film Festival

By the creator of ‘Shtisel,’ the six-part series depicts an Israel officially divided after bitter civil war turns the country into walled-off religious and secular states

Assi Cohen, left, as Broide, and Daniella Kertesz as Anna in 'Autonomies.' (Courtesy)
Assi Cohen, left, as Broide, and Daniella Kertesz as Anna in 'Autonomies.' (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — Television’s dominance in the cultural conversation is a trend with no end in site.

Streaming services such as Netflix make it all too easy to beam fresh content into your eyeballs, and the medium’s typical plot-propulsive “and-then-this-happens” — mixed with episodes ending just when you most want to know what comes next — has turned everyone into binging fools. Then when you’ve wasted, er, I mean, spent eight hours over a weekend with a group of characters in turmoil, you simply must discuss it with co-workers the next day.

This has had a bit of a ripple effect for programmers at film festivals. Sure, once in a while a movie will have an enormous run time. I’m personally looking forward to a New York revival of Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-and-a-half-hour “1900” in a few weeks.

But when something is made for television, even if its creators claim it’s “just a five-part movie,” the format’s inherent episodic nature, re-use of sound cues or certain shots and (“Game of Thrones” not withstanding) vastly lower budgets, can quickly remind audiences why most TV is meant to be watched on TV.

Nevertheless, the New York Jewish Film Festival (a marvelous partnership between The Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center now in its 28th year, running until January 22) rolled the dice and decided to make a small series “Autonomies” its centerpiece entry. The packed house at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater began filling up at 5:30 p.m. and the end credits didn’t run until 10!

It’s the first time that the festival has gone this route and it’s my hope that it is the last time —  and that other festivals give this increasingly common practice a rest. Because even though I really loved “Autonomies,” I was just dying for it to end. It simply wasn’t made to be watched this way.

Luckily for you, you’ll get to see it in its natural habitat, i.e. your home.

I’m not exactly sure when that will be, as the very popular “Shtisel,” the previous effort from “Autonomies” director Yehonatan Indursky, only made it to Netflix late last year, but take note of the title.

“Autonomies” is set in an alternate reality. It’s the same as our world, only 30 years ago there was a civil war in Israel when the state pressed more firmly to force the ultra-Orthodox community into the IDF. After a time of violence, Jerusalem was established as an independent area — the Jewish Autonomy in the Holy Land — with the rest of the country more aggressively secular than it is now. One establishing shot, almost Oz-like in its depiction, shows Tel Aviv off in the distance, then a no man’s land and finally a checkpoint to the warmly-hued, Yiddish-speaking kernel of religious life.

Our bridge between the two worlds is Broide (Assi Cohen) who seems, at first, to be a caring and righteous man with a peculiar, niche job: transporting the bodies of Jews that have died in the “State” (outside Jerusalem) into “the Autonomy” if they wish to have a religious burial. While there, though, he isn’t above smuggling in some illicit materials, like non-kosher books, or pornographic DVDs or even some pork loins. (This last one, however, he won’t allow to ride in any coffin containing a Jew; Broide has his limits.)

Here’s something film (or television) can do that a written description can not: you know, instinctively, immediately, that Broide is a good person. It is a monumental bit of acting on Cohen’s part. It’s in his eyes, in the way he sighs (if I’m not mistaken, his first line of dialogue is a cascade of “oy veys”), and in the way he lightly chuckles at the world around him, especially when he’s having pangs of guilt.

Assi Cohen as Broide in ‘Autonomies.’ (Screenshot)

And he certainly has much to feel guilty about. He has a devoted and beautiful wife (Rotem Sela as Blumi) at home with the children, but the quickness with which he hooks up with bereaved saxophonist Anna (Daniella Kertesz), whom he calls Hannah and then Hannah’le, implies that he’s had his share of philandering with women in the State.

Broide (who also calls himself Jonah Son of Leah if you want to get some biblical allegories in) soon finds himself with an ethical dilemma at the heart of the State/Autonomy divide. There’s no way to predict how it will end up, but we know from the offset that it isn’t going to be good.

In addition to Broide we get to know a slew of characters, among them a secular couple in the State, Batia and Asher (Dana Ivgy and Yaakov Zada Daniel), poised for divorce and speaking French when they don’t want their daughter to overhear, and a religious couple in the Autonomy, Elka and Hilik (Tali Sharon and Dan Kastiriano), who live in the shadow of Elka’s father, the chief rabbi, played with tremendous authority and, occasionally, humor by Shuli Rand.

What we quickly learn is this: There was an accident at a hospital and now, nine years later, the baby that Elka and Hilik thought had died has actually been raised by Batia and Asher. They want their child back but, more forcefully, the rabbi wants to reclaim “another Jewish soul” away from those monstrous Zionists.

Shuli Rand as the chief rabbi in ‘Autonomies.’ (Courtesy)

The rabbi’s right-hand man is aware that Broide is a smuggler. Indeed, unknown to Broide, the rabbi has been using his services. Not for bacon or dirty movies, but for texts like Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” (another story of a culture divided in two). The rabbi puts the squeeze on Broide and, eventually (and after many twists of fate) he agrees to go back to the State and kidnap the rabbi’s granddaughter.

“That rabbi is not righteous,” an older woman sitting behind me hissed, which might explain why attending Jewish film festivals remains one of the last pure pleasures left in the world. But this is where the six episodes of “Autonomies,” co-written by Indursky and Ori Elon, gets most interesting. No character is fully loathsome and none (or, at least, few) are angels.

Prior to his entertainment career Indursky attended the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He appears secular in dress but, after hearing him speak, it is quickly evident that has not closed himself off from that community. At a post-screening Q&A (which was not heavily attended due to the length of the screening and late hour) Indursky was a man representing two worlds.

‘Shtisel’ co-writer Yehonatan Indursky in his Tel Aviv apartment, far from his childhood Haredi home in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem (Courtesy Sam Spiegel)

His comments about not needing to build walls for the production because “Jerusalem has enough walls, and walls are not good” seemed to originate from the left, while an offhand but direct statement that the ultra-Orthodox should not be forced to serve in the IDF is certainly a position from conservative religious roots.

To “Autonomies” great credit, this consideration of all sides saturates most of the conflict, as well as the dystopian world building and — let’s not forget this is juicy television — the ripping escapade. I look forward to more people seeing this thing so we can argue about the implications of the ending just as much as we did Spike Lee’s Mookie throwing the garbage can in “Do The Right Thing.”

It was a long haul of an evening, and watching it compressed gets the mind whirling.

For the initial stretch of “Autonomies” I was framing it as an Israeli “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But once the alternate reality was firmly established, it morphed more into an Israeli “Breaking Bad,” in which moral compromise leads a person with good intentions into an abyss. But that didn’t work either, especially considering just how darkly funny some of the later sequences are.

Maybe the most striking thing about “Autonomies” is how it lives on its own.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.