“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” (Une Bouteille à la Mer) has been billed by some critics as a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet.
Indeed, our young protagonists — Tal Levine (Agathe Bonitzer), a French teenager who has made aliyah with her family, and 20-year-old Gazan Naïm Al Fardjouki (Mahmud Shalaby of last year’s film festival feature “Free Men”) — are from rival houses. Seventy-three kilometers apart, yet separated by walls and ideologies, they establish an unrequited friendship through clandestine emails.
But the comparison ends there. “Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is much more about the reckoning that both Tal and Naïm have to do with each other, as well as with their own families and values.
Withdrawn and jumpy after a nearby café bombing, Tal has her brother, a soldier serving near Gaza, toss a message in a bottle into the sea.
“I wonder,” she writes, “how anybody can attach explosives to his body, choose some place and watch his victims, knowing he’s about to die.” Somewhat implausibly, the bottle ends up in the hands of Naïm and his friends.
“She’s nuts!” they laugh. “She wants to know how a guy blows himself up? Abu Samir, our neighbor, will show her!”
Naïm, however, secretly contacts Tal via the email address she’s left, which begins a rocky correspondence until Tal reveals her French origins. Rather than stoking Naïm’s anger (after all, she has another homeland), this fact endears her to him. For he is studying French, and in her he has found a language partner. Ah, oui, the French save the day.
Directed by Thierry Binisti, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is based on Valérie Zenatti’s young-adult novel by the same title. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand the simplicity of the friendship and some of its more problematic elements.
Yet despite the criticism, “Bottle” is beautifully shot and acted and impeccably timed. Moreover, it poignantly captures the day-to-day challenges of Naïm, Tal, and their friends and families, from Tal’s growing disaffection with her parents and boyfriend to Naïm’s frustration with his t-shirt delivery job and the extended family that has been forced to temporarily share his apartment. And while the gravity of the conflict is more heavily weighted toward Naïm — especially when Operation Cast Lead begins — their personal grievances, family conflicts, life lessons, and moments of comic relief complement each other.
No one said the Middle East conflict was easy, and these days art tends to either pick sides or neutralize the passions into a digestible lesson about how we’re all the same. “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” takes the latter tack, but not without trying to point out the nuance along the way.
But truly, given the complexity of the situation, is a little simplicity once in a while such a bad thing?