Daniel Wachsmann’s 1990 film, THE APPOINTED, melds the mystical and the profane creating an enigmatic tale of love and destiny, Set in the biblical world of the Kabbalah as lived in contemporary Israel, it is the story of Shemya, the prodigal son and grandson of rabbis who tries and fails to remove himself from his hereditary position as the leader of a small but zealous community.
As the film opens, Shemya is touring the hinterlands of Israel with a shopworn magic act. With his manager Avram, they barely eke out a living until Oshra, a mysterious woman appears on the scene, literally igniting the act with her ability to spontaneously combust objects. Suddenly, the act is making money and then, just as suddenly, it is shunned as being the work of Satan. It all becomes moot when Shemya, his identity as the son of a holy man revealed, is asked to bless a mute child. Thrust into the startled Shemya’s arms, the child begins to cry, and Shemya’s fate as a magician of a different kind is sealed, and any hope of happiness in this life is snatched from him.
Wachsmann does an excellent job of creating the medieval mindset of Shemya’s religious community. Even in modern cities, they are otherworldly gliding through ancient streets wearing robes and an almost forbidding air of solemnity. He also uses the play of light and shadow to effectively reflect the turmoil in Shemya’s mind, as he lurches between sanity and madness, good and evil, kindness and vindictiveness.
Most intriguing, though, is the many subtexts with which Shmuel Rasfari, Rasi Levinas and Wachsmann have infused their script. Reference is made at the start that it is Lilith, the first wife that Adam sent away, who, in the person of Oshra, is driving Shemya mad. But was she sent from Satan, or was it Shemya who subconsciously called her to keep him from his unwanted inheritance? And there’s the name of his father, David, and his followers’ insistence that he, Shemya, will rise again after death, a not so subtle reference to the prophecy that the Jewish messiah would spring from the House of David.
The writers aren’t above a little piquant humor, either. Shemya and Oshra, enjoying a quiet moment on the shores of Lake Galilee, encounter a priest and his congregation reading the story of Jesus calling his apostles on that very spot. The lovers cause a branch to burst into flame, sowing confusion among the tourists and the mistaken belief that they’re seen a miracle from Jesus himself. ”Be sure to get a picture,” the priest yells to his flock. There’s also the pointed jab of having Avram, now Shemya’s assistant in his ministry, comparing a major service to a command performance before important people.
THE APPOINTED works above all because of the vibrant performances of Shuli Rand as the tortured Shemya and Ronit Elkabetz as the pale and imperious Oshra. They are a pair of lovers as strange and compelling as any captured on film. What their tale ultimately means is left to the audience, and by not giving us all the answers, Wachsmann insures that it’s a question, and a film, that will linger.