Dissolution (Hitparkut, 2010)

Director: Nina Menkes

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Poverty has a withering effect not only on one’s physical circumstances, but also on one’s spirit. It can make decent people desperate, and desperate people behave despicably. Dissolution, a somber film by American/Israeli director Nina Menkes, takes the character and situation of Raskolnikov, the impoverished student who murders his pawnbroker in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, and transplants them to Yafo, the Arab section of Tel Aviv. In doing so, her interpretation loses focus on the philosophical concerns of the novel, but burrows into the physical and spiritual effects of violence on an oppressed community.

The unnamed protagonist, played by nonprofessional actor Didi Fire, is an Israeli Jew who lives in a tenement owned and populated by Arabs. He seems to have no source of income, and gets by pawning jewelry to a female pawnbroker who will barely let him in the front door of her apartment/shop. He has gone into a meat market to get something for dinner, but only has seven shekels to spend; the butcher gives him a beef lung. He goes home, dodges the aggressive complaints of his landlady about the rent he owes her, and sharpens a knife in time with a metronome. Nonetheless, he can barely cut through the lung, and when he cooks it in a pan, he must skim the globules of fat that bubble up from inside it. Anger at this wretched meal bubbles over inside him, and he makes another visit to the pawnbroker with a pocket watch; he steals some objects that have been pawned while she is in her bedroom fetching the money for his watch.

The man uses the money to visit a local tavern, where he chats up a woman who is probably a prostitute, but leaves before she can get her hooks into him. He will make two more stops into this tavern, talking with other women, but ending up drinking and conversing with a cop at the bar each time. During the last conversation, his demeanor is shaken, as by then he has killed the pawnbroker, broken into her strongbox to steal some cheap-looking jewelry, and buried it in the woods until it is safe to start using it to live off of.

Dissolution is a very quiet film with minimal dialogue and no music aside from the prayer chants from a nearby mosque. Yet it is loaded with violence, or rather, its aftermath. The first violent scene shows the results of a car wreck from a high long shot looking down into the street. Two cars are smashed from a head-on collision, emergency vehicles are on the scene carting away the injured and dead, people mill around talking about a man from the neighborhood who was killed in the wreck, and two dogs and two people on horseback move in and out of the scene. In another scene, the Arab landlady and her husband are heard (but not seen) arguing bitterly, and then a flower vase comes crashing onto the stairs; the man snatches one of the scattered calla lilies off the stairs and carries it up to his apartment. In yet another scene, a woman with a wide swath of blood on her midsection is moved into an ambulance; her jealous boyfriend has stabbed her, and his friends eye the man suspiciously as he watches the spectacle and then go over to him and threaten him for having spoken with her.

And then, of course, there is the murder. We watch from the opposite end of the hall as the man talks his way into the pawnbroker’s apartment. The camera remains fixed in position for some time, and then a garbled cry of anguish and a thud are heard. After what seems an eternity, we get inside the apartment. A handheld camera is in the woman’s bedroom, where what looks like a large puddle of blood has pooled on the floor. The man comes into the room and kneels down to force the lock of her strongbox open. He seems to play with the swaths of tulle and delicate scarves lying next to the jewelry and a wad of money, and then takes what he wants and ransacks the rest of the room looking for more.

Symbolism from the novel infuses this film, most spectacularly, a dream, or possibly a memory, of a draft horse being stoned while the man, now a boy, yells at his father for doing nothing. The horse is hit and crumbles to the ground. We are left with the arresting image of the street, now empty of everything except the prone figure of the horse that could be a stand-in for the murdered pawnbroker or for all the victims of violence. Another effective image has a scorpion skittering across the man’s floor—a pang of conscience, perhaps, to poison his existence. Tellingly, the man throws a lamp at it to try to kill it; he misses, thereby extinguishing his light.

Not all of the images, symbolic or otherwise, work in this film. An early shot of a large snail that the man pokes lightly with his foot is long and impenetrable. When the snail reappears late in the film, the man lies down next to it. Has he lost his superiority over this slow and relatively helpless creature, or is this just a little too much artiness in trying to suggest events from Dostoevsky’s novel?

Dissolution sometimes gets the better of its mesmerizing story and setting with long takes that go nowhere, as well as a meandering quality that offers impressions rather than points of view. The film suggests the man’s yearning for redemption, but Fire never uses his incredible face or acts in a way to suggest any change in his character after the murder. Instead, Menkes offers images and actions—a young girl from his building who appears at odd moments and mixes with a final image of galloping horses, as well as the man’s wanderings through a church and visit to a confessional—to take us on the man’s moral journey. Yet, offering religion and an Olympus-like ending as hopeful signposts seems like jerry-rigging Dostoevsky’s concerns about nihilism into a geographic region that has benefited little from formalized belief systems.

As someone who spends a lot of time watching celluloid and trying to save the physical medium of film, I was utterly in awe of the look of this HD CAM, black-and-white movie. The cinematography of Itai Marom is miraculous, with such rich blacks I thought nitrate had made a comeback. There is a certain amount of posterizing in the blacks as well, which lends a psychologically unsettling atmosphere to the proceedings, and the shot compositions by Marom and Menkes are perfectly chosen and composed.

Menkes is an experimental filmmaker who says she makes films instinctively. While Dissolution does not resonate as deeply as it might have with a more emotionally emergent presentation, this arresting film is likely to linger in the mind for a long time to come.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/01/2011 to 9:52 pm

    “Dissolution, a somber film by American/Israeli director Nina Menkes, takes the character and situation of Raskolnikov, the impoverished student who murders his pawnbroker in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, and transplants them to Yafo, the Arab section of Tel Aviv. In doing so, her interpretation loses focus on the philosophical concerns of the novel, but burrows into the physical and spiritual effects of violence on an oppressed community.”

    Geez, that’s quite a ‘fascinating’ mouthful there Marilyn, and subsequent discussion of symbolism and social-political context have certainly enriched this most desirable off-the-radar film. I’ve seen quite a few Israeli films over the past several years, but sorry to say not this one. Your vivid appraisal is the perfect selling point.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2011 to 10:05 pm

    Sam – This was an film festival winner in Israel, and is out now here and there. Facets was the venue here in Chicago, and they like to pick up films few other venues will show because, as a nonprofit, they don’t have to worry too much about box office sales. The film is so gorgeous – I wish I could have found screencaps that do it justice. It really needs to be seen on Blu-ray to be appreciated, a technology Facets has added to its equipment. I’m a fan of Israeli films, and of Crime and Punishment, so this was a special treat for me.

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