"In the old Hollywood movies, the underdog always won. I've got to believe that can still happen," says Joseph Cedar, sitting in the lobby of a cheap hotel in the mid-Wilshire area frequented by young Israelis and artistic types of various nationalities.Edan Alterman and Tinkerbell star in "Time of Favor," an Oscar hopeful for Israel this year. Photo by Yoni Hamenachem
Cedar, 32, lean, intense, with a kipah atop his close-shaved hair, is the director and writer of "Time of Favor," Israel's official contender in this year's Academy Award race for best foreign film.
Forty-five other countries have entered their best films and five will be nominated, precisely at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 13, as finalists for the top honor.
Cedar doesn't have a budget for splashy ads in the Hollywood trade papers, like front-runner "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" from Taiwan. He has few influential contacts, and, as a first-time director, he has no track record.
What he does have is a burning conviction that "Time of Favor" is a gripping, timely movie with universal appeal whose sheer excellence will make it the first Israeli film in 16 years to win a spot among the five nominees. (Only four Israeli films have made it that far during the past 50 years, and none has ever won an Oscar.)
Of course, Sunset Boulevard is littered with the shattered dreams of hopeful young filmmakers, but in this case, Cedar's fervent faith is buoyed by others.
Recently, the entire front page of The New York Times' entertainment section was taken up by a detailed article with photos on "Time of Favor." A few days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that at a screening of the movie at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the word-of-mouth buzz about "Time of Favor" was so intense that more than 100 fans were left outside clamoring to get into the sold-out screening. The headline of the Los Angeles Times story read, "Oscar Hopeful 'Time of Favor' Stirring Up a Storm in the Desert."
"Time of Favor" ("Hahesder" -- "The Arrangement" -- in Hebrew) has a number of pluses going for it: fine performances by some of Israel's top talent, a storyline that combines low-key romance with nerve-tingling action, an authentic portrayal by an insider of Israel's national religious settlers and a plot that appears ripped from today's headlines of the turbulent Middle East or, better said, the possible nightmare headlines of the future.
The film is set in an isolated West Bank settlement, surrounded by the stark Judean hills and desert. The leader and head of the settlement's yeshiva is charismatic Rabbi Meltzer (Asi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan and a fervent secular leftist, in a bravura performance), who foresees the time when Jerusalem's Temple Mount will be cleared of Muslims and restored to Jewish hands.
The persuasive Meltzer has convinced the army to establish an all- Orthodox unit, attracting the finest yeshiva students, who will form the "spearhead" -- for what purpose is unclear.
Commanding the unit is Menahem (played by hunky Aki Avni), who is both Orthodox and a professional soldier. Among his men is the frail Pini (Edan Alterman), who has the making of a brilliant Talmudist and is intended by Meltzer to marry his daughter, Michal (played by the talented Israeli actress who goes under the odd name of Tinkerbell).
Independent-minded Michal is instead attracted to Menahem, who is also drawn to her but, in loyalty to the rabbi and Pini, rebuffs her.
Pini, distraught over the rejection by Michal and convinced that the rabbi's futuristic vision calls for direct action, plots to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy shrine on the Temple Mount.
Israel's Shin Bet is tipped off and, fearful that Pini's action will ignite the entire Muslim world, works feverishly to forestall the explosion. The secret service men believe Menahem to be one of the plotters but can't foil the plot without his help.
The realization that such a deranged attempt is conceivable, and the unthinkable consequences if successful, gives the film's climax its special edge.
Cedar was born in New York into a modern Orthodox family. In 1973, when he was 5, his father, a noted geneticist, and his mother, a drama-psychotherapist, made aliyah.
The family settled in the Bayit Vegan section of Jerusalem, dominated by the national religious adherents of Gush Emunim. Joseph served with an Israeli paratroop unit, where he was one of three kipah-wearing soldiers.
After his discharge, he earned a bachelor's degree at Hebrew University and then graduated from New York University's film school.
When he started writing "Time of Favor" in 1995, Cedar moved to a West Bank settlement north of Ramallah, and his friends in the settlement and the Orthodox community had high hopes for his project. "They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are," Cedar recalled.
But as the screenplay evolved over the years, it was gradually transformed from the initial showcase picture for the national religious viewpoint.
"I came to believe that the central question of the film was how much an individual must sacrifice for the good of a group or to advance a cause," Cedar said. "It's a question now facing Israeli society, and I don't know the answer. Like the film itself, I have more questions than answers."
Cedar and his wife, journalist Vered Kelner, have been in Los Angeles since early December, trying, in best Hollywood fashion, to create a "network" from scratch.
"I've called everybody I know, and then the people they referred me to, anything to give the film some exposure," he said.
"Time of Favor" has been screened in many "beautiful homes in Beverly Hills" and has circulated among people in "the industry," and the reaction, Cedar said, has been that "finally here is an Israeli film that has a chance to be nominated for an Academy Award."
The movie was even brought to the attention of Bill Clinton in the waning days of his presidency, though he didn't get around to seeing it, according to Cedar.
So far, "Time of Favor," like most foreign language films, hasn't found an American distributor. Cedar hopes this will change if the film is nominated. However, it is due to be screened at the Israeli Film Festival in New York on Feb. 22 and in Los Angeles on March 27.
Meanwhile, Cedar has attracted enough attention so that American and foreign producers are inquiring about his next project.It will be a comedy, mainly about Jewish fundraising. "After five years of getting this film off the ground, I've become an expert on fundraising," he says.
While waiting for the results of the fateful Academy vote, Cedar's mood fluctuates. "I'm afraid to be too optimistic -- you know, provoking the Evil Eye," he says, "but I will be deeply disappointed if I don't make it."