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Alex Ramon

Contemporary revisionings of King Lear have been common in the culture, whether it’s Edward Bond offering a Marxist take on the play in Lear (1971) or Jane Smiley’s feminist transposition of the plot to the Iowa cornfields in A Thousand Acres (1991). In his debut feature, Red Leaves, which is screening in the London Film Festival’s “Journey” strand, Bazi Gete doesn’t approach Shakespeare’s play through an overt political prism as did Bond and Smiley. In transferring aspects of the plot to contemporary Israel, the writer-director delivers a fresh and involving film that never feels overly dependent on its source.

The movie’s Lear-ish protagonist is Meseganio (Debebe Eshetu), an elderly Ethiopian man who, following the death of his wife, announces that he’ll be living with his children from now on. But this plan proves problematic, as once installed, Meseganio starts observing infidelities and unhappiness in his children’s lives, and is unable to resist intervening.

Red Leaves begins at a measured, deliberate pace, introducing us to the characters in the most unobtrusive way possible, and concentrating on the family’s day-to-day doings and dynamics before tensions inevitably explode. There are strong suggestions of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (The Secret of the Grain) (2007) in the attention given to the characters’ interactions over meals, and, from these ...

Contemporary revisionings of King Lear have been common in the culture, whether it’s Edward Bond offering a Marxist take on the play in Lear (1971) or Jane Smiley’s feminist transposition of the plot to the Iowa cornfields in A Thousand Acres (1991). In his debut feature, Red Leaves, which is screening in the London Film Festival’s “Journey” strand, Bazi Gete doesn’t approach Shakespeare’s play through an overt political prism as did Bond and Smiley. In transferring aspects of the plot to contemporary Israel, the writer-director delivers a fresh and involving film that never feels overly dependent on its source.

The movie’s Lear-ish protagonist is Meseganio (Debebe Eshetu), an elderly Ethiopian man who, following the death of his wife, announces that he’ll be living with his children from now on. But this plan proves problematic, as once installed, Meseganio starts observing infidelities and unhappiness in his children’s lives, and is unable to resist intervening.

Red Leaves begins at a measured, deliberate pace, introducing us to the characters in the most unobtrusive way possible, and concentrating on the family’s day-to-day doings and dynamics before tensions inevitably explode. There are strong suggestions of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (The Secret of the Grain) (2007) in the attention given to the characters’ interactions over meals, and, from these encounters, the movie gradually builds up a compelling portrait of a man out of joint with changing times.

Gete keeps us physically close to Meseganio, and Eshetu’s carefully modulated performance withstands the scrutiny, presenting a stubborn man who can be warm and genial with his buddies, yet who is harshly critical of his children when they don’t act as he believes they should. A shocking and moving incident on the street – Meseganio’s equivalent of Lear’s “storm scene”, if you will – provides the movie’s emotional crux.

The film loses its way a little after this event, with Gete critiquing the Israeli authorities’ treatment of Meseganio in a way that’s slightly crude, and failing to provide a satisfying conclusion to the drama. But Eshetu’s superb performance, and the film’s portrait of an immigrant community seldom seen on screen before, means that Red Leaves lingers with the viewer.

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