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‘Cup Final’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1992


Eran Riklis
Moshe Ivgi
Not rated

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The combination of the plain-spoken and the miraculous is rare enough in any of the arts, but even more so in the movies. But that's precisely the mix that Eran Riklis accomplishes in his exhilarating anti-war film "Cup Final." Stylistically, this enormously gifted Israeli director's effects are so spare that we're left unprepared for the poetic richness that his story delivers. It's a powerful film, and yet one of the most unassuming great movies ever made.

"Cup Final" slips nicely in step with a growing column of films -- "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Reservoir Dogs" and "Laws of Gravity" -- that show men being men; in this case, the men are a gang of PLO rebels fighting the advancing Israelis as they march through Lebanon. The year is 1982, and the eight members of this makeshift platoon seem hopelessly outmanned by the well-supplied Israelis. But when they capture an Israeli reservist named Cohen (Moshe Ivgi), they realize they have a valuable commodity in hand. If they can get him -- and themselves -- to Beirut alive, he could be used in a possible trade for PLO prisoners.

The getting-there-alive part is the really tough aspect of this plan. What Riklis never lets us forget is that there is a war -- not a scuffle or a conflict, but an all-out war between ancient enemies -- going on. And that every movement, even the most, taken-for-granted, casual act, like going to the bathroom, is fraught with danger. For everyone in the film, the next step could be their last.

The rebels, who are led with cool efficiency by Ziad (Muhamad Bacri), are used to this sort of chaotic life. They're reconciled to fighting a war that began before they were born and that they're certain will outlive them. Riklis's subject, though, is not the divisions between the PLO soldiers and their Israeli captive, but the things that they have in common.

To examine these human connections between the combatants, Riklis uses sport, specifically soccer, as a metaphor. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon just happens to coincide with the playing of the World Cup soccer matches in Barcelona. And, as the enemies compare their various enthusiasms for certain players and teams, it turns out that they share the same passion for team Italia, which is moving up through the ranks to the finals.

As the rebels march with their prisoner toward Beirut, they stop whenever possible to keep track of the matches (which, ironically, Cohen has tickets for), and, in the process, they discover that they have much more than sports in common. In one marvelous scene, Cohen shows his captors a picture of his wife; as the photo is passed from man to man, each one gives their proud hostage a subtle thumbs-up, as if to say, "Nice work, Cohen."

Yet, still, they are enemies; yet, still, they fight and kill each other. And why? Riklis asks. Because they have always been enemies. Nobody in this group wants to kill Cohen, and Cohen doesn't want to kill them, because they have seen each other as human beings -- men with families and dreams just like their own.

This refusal to take sides is Riklis's greatest achievement -- that and his work with a remarkable ensemble of unknown but marvelously gifted actors. Ivgi and Bacri are beautifully mismatched: Ivgi is short and intense; Bacri is lean and laconic, like a Palestinian Clint Eastwood. Together, they become a kind of war-zone Mutt and Jeff.

The story, though, has to end tragically, and when it does, the loss of these makeshift friendships only makes the pain that much more intolerable. Riklis shows that wars are fought not between nations, but between men -- men who, if religious faith were removed from the picture, might be hanging over each other's backyard fence as true friends. It's a devastating notion, and a surprising, stirring film.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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