Noga Emanuel kicks off our new irregular series looking at Israel on Netflix with her take on Maktub, a commercial success and one of Israel’s 100 most watched films.
How can we tell if someone is a genuine, old stock Jerusalemite? We ask them what 100+100 is. If they answer with the normative ‘mah-tah-im’ מאתיים (200) they are relatively new arrivals to the city. If they enunciate ‘mah-ah-tah-aim’, מאאתייםdoubling the first vowel ‘ah’, they are the real deal.
‘Maktub’ is as quirky a tale as the two hundred test. Only in Jerusalem could such a story take place. The narrow cobblestoned alleys, the quaint ‘boutique’ restaurants, the mélange of old and new, modern and traditional, could all be found in many other ancient cities. However, the Western Wall, the legendary Mahne Yehuda open-air market, Hadassah hospital, the thousand accents of Hebrew speakers, bearded Chassidim in Borsalino hats, modish young women, the geeks, the junior football league, the kids playing marbles anywhere outside, are all vintage Jerusalem.
Genre-wise, ‘Maktub’ is a variation on the cinematic theme so popularised in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’, a black comedy that kicks at its own rules. But whereas Tarantino’s film ends with a tongue-in-cheek salvific miracle (a likeable villain killed mid-film is brought back to life), ‘Maktub’ starts with what feels like a real miracle whose benefiters’ entitlement to it remain uncertain until the very end.
The Plot (Warning: Spoilers)
Chuma (Guy Amir) and Steve (Hanan Savyon) are life-long best friends employed as money-collectors by a Jerusalemite crime boss in the protection racket. We first meet the duo as they sit at a restaurant discussing culinary nuances about the food an anxious-looking waiter serves them. All at once their casual banter sublimates to violence, leaving us in no doubt about their business skills. At the same time, we understand that they dread their boss and his scary henchman, and are desperate to break free of their grip. Their personal aspirations are as banal as flat beer. Steve longs to open a fast-food truck business in New York. All Chuma wants is to live a normal life, with a family.
Soon afterwards, their morally shrunken and desolate world literally explodes, as three unrelated vectors converge in one fatal second of time: lunch, transfer of a caseload of money by a Chechen courier with a glass eye, a suicide bomber delivering his deadly load in a Jerusalem restaurant. All that’s left are a briefcase of money, the Chechen’s glass eye and, by some fluke chain of events, the two of them. They stagger away, still carrying the attaché case with the Chechen’s money, mostly unharmed but for Chuma’s temporary deafness. Too stunned and still struggling to figure out what has just happened, they gradually realise that a chink cracked open in their life, a slim opportunity to unfetter themselves of their futureless serfdom. Chuma insists they go to the Western Wall to say a prayer for their miraculous survival. Another chain reaction of small events, involving Steve’s accidental act of sacrilege, inspires an idea in Chuma’s mind: they will keep the money, and use it to help the supplicants who tuck their notes between the stones to get their wishes.
They are granted ‘unpaid leave of absence’ by their unsympathetic boss giving them time to recover from the trauma of the explosion. In their pursuit of the righteous path – fulfilling the secret wishes of random people whose notes they pick at the Western Wall – they employ the same means of persuasion of their trade.
The story has a subplot involving Steve’s ex-wife Lizo, a young son he does not acknowledge, and Chuma’s relationship with both of them which he keeps secret from his friend.
This tangled web of secrets and suspicions has to be untangled, each reel unfurling in its own time and way, before the two toughies can wriggle out of their dead end existence to recover their broken souls.
Like many Israeli films, the meagerness of budget is compensated for by the originality of the narrative, and the talent of the actors. Considering the quiet desperation of the supplicants’ pleas for succor, the dreadful timeslot into which the film is inserted (the daily news of suicide bombings exploding buses, cafes, restaurants), the film’s core optimism may appear brazen, an abiding Israeli attribute.
It is well-known that only consonants are written in the Hebrew script. Therefore, the film’s Hebrew name מכתוב can be enunciated as either ‘Maktub’ or ‘Makatuv’.
‘Maktub’ is an expression from the Arabic that meaning ‘It is written’, that is to say, inscribed from above, fate is pre-determined and unchangeable. Read in Hebrew as ‘Makatuv’ it means: what is written. The film’s name also brings into play the hand-written supplication notes people tuck between the stones of the Western Wall.
The two renderings of the film’s title, though similar, are not identical. The tension between them mirrors as well as accentuates the irony of the irreconcilables at the heart of this film: statement versus question, fatalism versus free choice. By juxtaposing the irresistibility of rolling events with the natural compulsion to exercise human will, ‘Maktuv’ may be regarded as a dramatisation of the Tractate Avot’s [i.e. a chapter in Mishnaic Jewish text, known as The Ethics of the Fathers] rejoinder, that ‘Though all is inscribed, man is licensed to choose’. It’s a paradox that confounds Steve and Chuma as it does all humans in all cultures at all times.