Vassilis Kroustlalis reviews 'Golda' by Guy Nattiv, screened at Berlin Film Festival 2023.
It is a flattering thing to be remembered (and in a good way) almost 50 years after your death. And Golda Meir is definitely remembered in the 'Golda' film by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv-in a script by Nicholas Martin (of 'Florence Forest Jenkins). Golda is celebrated even in her failing (and ailing) moments as a national symbol to be cherished -leaving the 'Iron Lady of Israel' nickname out of the window for the most part of the film.
This is a somehow fitting choice since Guy Nattiv chooses to portray the chronicle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the Arab States marshaled against Israel to re-occupy the areas previously occupied by the state of Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. This act, according to the film, was the outcome of hybris, its consequences Israel will now suffer.
Armed with this classical tragedy tool, 'Golda' starts in 1974, when Golda Meir goes on to testify among a committee about her actions in the 1973 Yom Kippur War -and a big flashback comes in, divided into a day chronicle (and appropriately sober blueish lighting). An almost unrecognizable Helen Mirren (prosthetics excel here) still commands the space despite her failing health; she needs to get subjected regularly (and discreetly) to her lymphoma radiation treatments. The very definition of a chain smoker, Meir needs to navigate not a triumph, but a possible defeat that will have dire consequences for all of Israel.
Nicholas Martin's script is definitely sympathetic to her cause, making her human empathy (the number of Israeli victims of war) her no1 priority. And Nattiv makes sure in his persistent occupation with Golda Meir's body shots, photographed from almost every angle, that a visceral experience is to follow -and it does. 'Golda' plays its cards carefully in the biopic genre, trying to give a snapshot of history (instead of a fully-fledged character's history); and by the same fact of Golda's consternation the film manages not to be an exploitation of pain and suffering. Unpleasant to watch, yes, but never desperate.
But that's not enough. The array of the male characters and generals in the main cabinet is really more like puppets on a string, and a too-easy target for Golda Meir to get to. (Ariel Sharon is here depicted as an arrogant fool, perhaps the most consistent characterization in the film). Yet, other than that, the Israeli prime minister has more information to absorb and less decision-making to do. The script wanders between the piece-by-piece details; and even though Nattiv fittingly uses archival material to depict the war scenes and makes the film look more like a cardboard war game, there is little the Prime Minister can do except for exercising her own strength to her closest ally, Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber). In his limited screen time, Kissinger is less cunning and more of a young boy waiting for his turn to get scolded -even if he knows his own will get things done in the end.
So, the primary deficit of 'Golda' is its lack of raison d' etre in this argumentative material presented. As Golda says, 'she's a politician, not a soldier'; but the film's military shenanigans, as necessary as they are, leave little room for any breath of personality intervention.
This is not to say that Helen Mirren won't do her best to subsume her persona into a body in decay. Unlike her 'The Queen' steady bravura performance, she now exercises her need to become an almost disappearing persona. She starts from the very lowest of denominators and lets her character progressively gain strength (and some posture). If the determination of the inevitable is the equivalent of the Jewish soul, Mirren possesses it.
'Golda' lets you travel with its main character, even though the film mostly takes place inside war rooms and cabinet meetings. Nattiv is not afraid to showcase directorial bravado in his shots to make the point of a character ruling in her most unruled demeanor (the shot of Golda Meir walking through the morgue of bodies to get her radiation treatments is a terrifying one). But ultimately, 'Golda' leaves more questions open about Golda Meir, who is simply gifted with the art of endurance. As a biopic, it is enhanced with a stronger directorial sense of its main character being important; as a film, it still looks like an unfinished piece of borscht.
Golda screened (world premiere) at the 73rd Berlin Film Festival 2023.