In an era in which textual traditions, whether that of the Bible or the modern literary canon, are increasingly sequestered in places of worship or underfunded Humanities departments, it is remarkable to find a film that engages the biblical tradition. That is what Ori Sivan’s new film, Harmonia, seeks to do.
At the third annual Victoria International Jewish Film Festival, which took place in November, Harmonia stood out among the many films the jury and I screened to make our twelve festival selections. The film reinterprets, in a contemporary setting, the story of the biblical Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Watching Harmonia reminded me that tradition can bring communities together or tear them apart.
In the film, Abraham is a master conductor of the Western Jerusalem Orchestra, where a new French horn player is to be hired. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, a virtuoso harpist in the orchestra, forms a close bond with the newly hired Hagar, a young Palestinian woman who passes as a Jew in order to fit into the elite Israeli classical music world.
Sarah and Hagar’s relationship is a passionate combination of need and desire. Sarah offers protection to the young horn player in a musical world riven by power struggles and patriarchal domination; Hagar comforts Sarah after her most recent miscarriage. Their relationship in the film is quasi-sexual, despite the obvious power disparity, offering a rereading of the neglected personhood and agency of women—including slave women—in the Bible. Their closeness persists even after Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child with Hagar.
With the birth of Ishmael to Hagar and, later, Isaac to Sarah, the intimacy between Sarah and Hagar deteriorates. Hagar returns to her Palestinian roots in Eastern Jerusalem, while Sarah attempts to act as mother to Ishmael, who is keenly aware that Isaac has displaced him. When Ishmael, now an angry teen who plays trumpet rather than piano to provoke Sarah, eventually intuits the identity of his real mother, he spurns Abraham and Sarah to rejoin Hagar.
The greatest departure from the biblical narrative occurs, however, in Harmonia’s climactic scenes. Isaac, now a young violin prodigy, comes to recognize that a familial rift had impelled his half-brother to flee eastward. Refusing his parents’ wish to cocoon him in the classical music world, Isaac sets out to locate his missing half-brother. The two are unexpectedly reunited on their own terms in the film’s concluding scene.
The ending of Harmonia, hopeful as it is about the possibility of reconciliation between the separated brothers—symbolically, all Palestinians and Israelis—may be unduly optimistic. Its disengagement from reality is reflected in the fact that the film ignores the harsh material conditions of Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem, let alone in the West Bank or Gaza. No occupation, home demolitions, or discriminatory policies are shown, or even alluded to, in the film.
Yet the film does something that news reports cannot: it imagines the possibility of reconciliation at a time when hopefulness and determination have given way to cynicism and fatalism. The film rejects the idea that our cultural narratives determine our futures. It suggests that these narratives can be read and interpreted anew to arrive at different conclusions. The received national narratives, Harmonia suggests, must be revised.
Seeing a film such as Harmonia in a local film festival allows us to reimagine our community as a place where tradition and renewal are like a fraternal pairing. When we build community—in cultural festivals, activism, faith contexts or elsewhere—we can come together to address the conflicts of the present with the help of texts written in other times.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. He is the director of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival (VIJFF.ca).
You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, January 27 2018