In a departure from his earlier films concerned with contemporary sexual turmoil--BAR 51 (1986) and DRIFTING (1984)--Israeli director Amos Gutman has based his latest work on a best-selling Israeli novel set during that country's War of Independence, Yoram Kaniuk's Himmo, King ofJerusalem. In 1948, Jerusalem is under siege, and a temporary military hospital has been set up at the St. Heironymus Monastery to help cope with the increasing numbers of wounded. Kimchi, whose lover has been killed in the war, comes to St. Heironymus as a volunteer nurse and is assigned to work
in a ward established in the belfry. Injured patients roam about the monastery, desultorily entertaining themselves in boyish and boorish fashion. At times the screams of Himmo, a blinded multiple amputee operated on without anesthesia because of the terrible shortages, resound through the halls,
chilling everyone's spirit. Like Himmo's brother, Lavi, they can all only watch and wait for him to die. Among the men in Kimchi's ward, Gavriel and Navon have assumed leadership and have developed a relationship in which Navon plays a clever Sancho Panza to Gavriel's macho Don Quixote. "So, are
we in love with her?" Navon asks Gavriel of their pretty, friendly new nurse. When Himmo is moved into the ward, Kimchi learns from Gavriel, his lifelong friend, that he was once known as "Himmo, King of Jerusalem" because of his effortless charisma, especially his way with the girls. Kimchi
conquers her fear of Himmo and becomes devoted to him and friendly with Lavi, losing all but professional interest in her other patients. They, in turn, begin to turn against the fallen hero, who, besides having taken Kimchi away from them, is a constant reminder of death in their presence. When
Himmo is moved to the bed nearest the door--a sign that he is expected to die soon--Kimchi moves her bed to the ward, between Himmo and the door. One night, as the suffering Himmo intones, "Shoot me, Shoot me" (the only words he speaks), Kimchi tenderly runs her fingers along the inside of his
mouth to quiet him. The other patients watch the erotic scene, spellbound; then one gets up, hits Kimchi, and pulls on the belfry ropes, sounding the bells in the middle of the night. Later Gavriel tries to force Kimchi into a symbolic marriage of life and death with Himmo. At other times he
insists that she kill Himmo, since what he really wants is to die, but everyone else is afraid to kill him. When the siege is broken, a party is held in the monastery at which everyone gets drunk and dances. Kimchi kisses Lavi, who she has previously noted, has Himmo's mouth. Lavi tells her he
won't see her anymore and kisses Himmo goodbye. Afterward Kimchi gives Himmo a lethal injection, then rings the bells, as the others in the ward look on.
A moody, atmospheric film, HIMMO, KING OF JERUSALEM shows the pain suffered in the War of Independence without glamorizing it or its participants. Himmo (based on a real character) is a barely living reminder of the devastating horrors of war, and his symbolic value determines the other patients'
ambivalent reactions to his presence. This provides the basis for the film's drama--which is rather stagy, with a fair amount of speechmaking from the beds and a restricted setting. With the introduction of Kimchi's fascination with Himmo, however, the film's presentation of wartime trauma becomes
confused and symbolically overloaded, as speculations as to the true nature of Kimchi's feelings take over. Is she a saint, does she truly love Himmo, or does she get an erotic, self-exalted charge out of nursing him? Might all three be true? What does she feel for Lavi? Though the film doesn't
answer these questions, the sexual tension inherent in Kimchi's relationship with her patients is the film's most compelling aspect. Unfortunately, Kimchi's performance is weak and sheds no light on the situation, leaving the other actors to give their interpretations of her motivations (more
speechmaking from the beds). When the film makes its points through symbolic motifs rather than dialog, it tends to be heavy-handed. For example, the bells ring as a cry of pain; also, a little girl wanders through the hospital with a one-armed doll, first as an ironic comment on war, later as an
affirmation that life goes on.
Gutman and cinematographer Jorge Gurevitz achieve more evocative effects with lighting and saturated color, suggesting the director might have allowed himself a stylistically freer hand. The baroque qualities of the monastery-turned-hospital setting, for example, although felt in the film, might
have been more fully exploited. Some expository elements could be jettisoned. As it is, this is a strangely unfulfilled promise of a film. Shown in European and American festivals in 1988. (In Hebrew; English subtitles.) (Brief nudity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1988
- Rating: NR
- Review: In a departure from his earlier films concerned with contemporary sexual turmoil--BAR 51 (1986) and DRIFTING (1984)--Israeli director Amos Gutman has based his latest work on a best-selling Israeli novel set during that country's War of Independence, Yoram… (more)