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Movie Reviews

Under The Domin Tree  

I`ve been reading a book, given to me by my eccentric but beautiful friend, called Daniel`s Story, a book she's owned since Grade Six. While it is classified as a 'children`s novel', the story itself is still pretty compelling, simply but accurately detailing the horrors of a Jewish family in Germany during WWII from the point of view of a young teenager. Under the Domim Tree works on very much the same level, focussing on the aftermath of similar atrocities from the point of view of a group of teenagers. They live in a boarding school of sorts in Israel, and all in one form or another have lost one or both parents to concentration camps and other tragic events during the war. The movie is not a complete masterpiece, but is able to discuss harsh issues in simple but heartfelt way.

As the film begins, one of the teenagers is found dead at the bottom of a lake nearby the boarding school, an apparent victim of suicide. This act is the most extreme version of the agony and confusion suffered by many of the inhabitants of this make-shift community. All of these people have something missing in their lives, and, 7 or 8 years after the war, it is natural for many of these kids to feel utterly hopeless. Aviya is one of the stronger ones, it seems, but she, too, suffers because of a mother who is in the mental institution and a father whom she does not know much about. Apparently, her father has been dead since the war, but only when the movie gets underway does she get any information (a picture, and a name behind the picture), but she does not fully understand all that's been given to her until later on.

Besides Aviya's own story, there are three major plot threads in the movie. One involves the two boys who were friends of the suicide victim. These two boys are probably the most mentally troubled, as they often act out in strange ways, such as running around the property in the middle of the night and screaming like wounded wild animals. The older boy starts taking a shine to Aviya, but his behaviour is not exactly lovey-dovey. Actually, I thought he was pretty scary, especially when he glares at Aviya for long periods of time without saying a word or responding to her. Obviously, he is fairly distraught that he finds it very difficult to relate to others very well.

Another involves a girl who discovers that her father is alive and back in her home country of Poland. She is naturally both blissful and very nervous about the planned reunion, and her friends even make her a new dress to wear back home. Her own happiness encourages others to ask her for help; one scene has her come in to her room to discover letters which they hope she will send with her to Poland, requesting that their own parents and relatives can be found. I must say that, without spoiling the events, I was not too surprised at the outcome of this plotline.

The last major story involves a new inhabitant of the residence, who soon becomes the target of dislike when she brings with her an arrogant and sardonic attitude. Of course, as in all melodramas, her nasty attitude masks a lot of real pain, and that is foreshadowed in a shot in the dressing room when Aviya sees scars over the new girl's back. Her story is the most interesting, because she apparently was taken away from another foster home by a couple claiming to be her parents, and who then repeatedly abused her. The last major scene is in the courtroom, where the girl must try to prove that she is not their child.

The message of this film is that closure, any kind of closure, is needed for these teenagers to finally get on with their lives. While all of the kids wish to find parents and relatives who are alive, in this situation, that is not always likely to happen. Aviya is able to become at peace with herself when she finally discovers her father's resting place, because at least she now knows who she is and what her past is. The other characters also need to discover comfort within themselves, either by finding out the truth of who their parents are, or where they are, or finding comfort with the people who are around them.

Under the Domim Tree (1995) is in fact the sequel to the 1988 film The Summer of Aviya; here, Aviya is about six or seven years older than in the previous film, and, unlike in the first film, she is not the entire focus of the story. In terms of simple content and form, there are many differences: the original film was essentially a coming-of-age tale, which the subject of her missing father was only one of a number of events that occurred in Aviya`s young life. In the second film, the search for identity and closure is the entire story. In terms of mood, the first film had a nostalgic and mysterious feel, as the adult Aviya narrates a story that would have been quite confusing for a ten year old to understand fully. The movie suggested many things which Aviya would not have been able to perceive or understand at the time. The second film, however, is more of an issues-oriented drama; the events seem more urgent, less personal. In many ways, this truly is a different film, and probably could be viewed without having seen the first film.

There is only one plot element that carries over to this film, and that is Aviya's search for her father. The first film was not very clear on the truth of her father, since much of the effect was in Aviya's firm belief that the next-door neighbour was, in fact, her dad. But (spoiler!), the story here makes it very clear that the father did die, and is buried somewhere in Israel. The truth, however, seems, for me, to undercut the apparent facts of the first film, and got me a bit confused for a minute. Seems as if the mother was never in Europe during the war, and was in Israel the entire time - so, if I've gotten this right, she could not have been in the concentration camp which is what Aviya seems to believe in the first film. In both films, the mother is in a mental institution for troubles in her past - troubles which I thought were her experiences in the concentration camp in the first film, but which now seem to be because of something else. Here, it seems that she is crazy because of her pain over the loss of others, which is much what the teenagers are experiencing.

This movie should be watched by people interested in wanting to understand the effects of the most horrible war in history on the survivors. And while Under The Domim Tree is certainly not a major masterpiece, and may be too melodramatic for some, it is still a well-meaning film, with many strong moments. As well, for anyone interested in searching far and wide for different examples of world cinema, this and The Summer of Aviya will give one a rare glimpse of Israeli cinema.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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