"I am not Menachem."
So says Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni, referring to his character in "Time of Favor," the Israeli psychological thriller opening in Los Angeles movie theaters Feb 1. The film, winner of six Israeli Oscars last year, including picture of the year, tells the story of a religious settler army unit in which one student, Pini, takes to heart his rabbi's ideological rantings about the Temple Mount, and crazily decides to blow it up.
Avni plays the lead character, Menachem, a religious company commander who must weigh his loyalty to the rabbi and the unit with his own sense of personal responsibility and his love for the rabbi's daughter, Michal, and in the end, save Pini from himself.
Even now, pounds thinner, hair choppier (he's just growing it back after shaving it all off for his last film) than when he played the 23-year-old religious commander, it's hard to separate the actor from the character. That quiet confidence, charismatic goodness and soft-spoken assurance with which Menachem carried the film (he won an Oscar for best actor) comes across in person.
Avni, 35, in a typically Tel Avivian formal outfit of sleek black -- collarless blazer, untucked buttoned shirt, stylish pants -- stands at attention to demonstrate how he got into the role of Menachem. Chin raised, shoulders back, heels clicked together, instantly, he becomes the character, the one on the screen who stole the heart of Michal and the audience with his sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted man: religious, idealistic, but learning to doubt.
Very different from the real Avni, who in the past few years has started becoming observant.The boy who grew up in Rehovot in what he calls an "atheist house" now keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, and has an older brother who's a Bretslover Chasid living in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim. "I became interested in the wisdom in Judaism. ... It would be a shame to lose it," he says.
His film character goes in a different direction. Menachem slowly disconnects from the spirited singing of his soldiers, his rabbi's orders to soldier on and forget Michal -- though it's never clear how far Menachem breaks from it.
Playing the part of Menachem was no problem -- he'd already starred in the popular weekly drama series, "Basic Training"; but to absorb the religious settler aspect, Avni spent time in yeshivas in Hebron and elsewhere. "I wanted to know the [behavioral] code between the students and the rabbi," Avni told The Journal.
Avni acts his part as convincingly as fellow actor Assi Dayan acts the role of Rabbi Meltzer, a chillingly sane man with a belief in the Greater Land of Israel, who holds sway over many impressionable yeshiva bochers (students), indirectly influencing Pini, a diabetic genius, to try to bomb the mosque after being rejected by Michal.
But did they play their parts too well? In Israel, during the year since the film has come out, many religious people were outraged because they felt the film portrays settlers in a negative light.
"All in all, it's not a biography, it's a movie," Avni says. "Even though the story could be realistic, in a far-off possibility, but it could be realistic."
The possibility of fanatical words leading to acts of terror isn't really far off; it's the world we live in today, post-Sept. 11, the world the film is being released into, even though it was made long before. But Avni is not concerned that "Favor," depicting Israel now to the world at large, depicts the nation in a fanatical light. "The movie clearly says there are extremists everywhere, but we [in Israel] don't accept them."
Avni believes American audiences will appreciate the film more now. "There is a great parallel between the story [of the film and that of] every extremist," he says. "Of course," he adds, "there's a big difference between Pini and terrorists."
Like most Israelis, Avni has a lot to say about the situation -- about Yasser Arafat not being a partner, about the failed Camp David talks, the need for a Palestinian state so that Israel can act freely, and the effect on Israelis and Israeli culture. "Whenever the security situation is bad, luxury is the first thing that hurts.... Today there are fewer people going out," Avni explains. "But people always want to be entertained, and we have a nation that's very, very strong; people are very strong in the State of Israel ... and no one will break us. Everybody understands that now more than ever."
His patriotism aside, Avni plans on spending more time in -- where else? -- Hollywood. Avni's wife, Israeli model Sandy Bar, will join him in their Marina del Rey apartment next month, and he is hoping to land work here. He has already signed with the Don Buchwald agency.
After nearly a decade of fame in Israel -- in theater, television and film as, say, the Israeli equivalent of Tom Cruise -- can the big fish from the small sea handle it as small fry here in Tinseltown?
"I'm nobody here. No one knows me," he admits. "But I love challenges. You know what? I look at it as something very good that happened to me. Israel, it was like my laboratory. I learned what I should do and what I shouldn't do," he says.
Avni started acting at age 12; his formal training began after his army service, studying at the Yoram Levinstein studio in Tel Aviv. For a few years Avni was pigeonholed as a TV show host ("The Price Is Right") before he got cast on the dramatic "Basic Training."
He doesn't seem to care that he might have to start all over again. "To tell you the truth. I feel like I've done it already. I don't have to prove anything to anyone," he says. "I know the feeling of going on the street when people want your autograph, I've done it already. I want to work in the biggest professional system that I can find, which is here, probably. That's what interests me."