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Delegation (Ha’Mishlahat): Film Review

Asaf Saban’s Delegation beautifully explores the lingering sadness of our psychological growing pains beneath the veil of poisoned happiness.

Have you ever been on a school trip that, as you thought about it afterward, changed how you felt about yourself and others? Whether you went abroad, stayed at a local place, or visited different locations across your country, the trip had an effect on your life. This happened to director-screenwriter Asaf Saban when he was seventeen years old, and this inspired him to make his second feature film, Delegation (Ha’Mishlahat). He went on a trip to Poland with his class to the Holocaust concentration camps and memorial museums in Auschwitz and Treblinka. But Saban felt disappointed, because standing in the various sites and places didn’t move him to the point of shock. He was waiting for that moment when the emotional toll luring in those places hit him.

That indifference left a strong impression on him; the memories of that trip were blurred by the random moments with his friends as they went from one memorial to the next one. Saban captures those feelings and the sensation of poisoned happiness in your youth – holding back your emotions by putting on a mask – through the eyes of three Israeli high school friends, Frisch (Yoav Bavly), Ido (Leib Lev Levin), and Nitzan (Neomi Harari), who partake in this trip to Poland, which is their last time together before going to the army. Combining two familiar genres, road trip and coming-of-age, Asaf Saban paves the way to explore these characters’ lives with empathy and clarity. Saban carefully adds the representation of the Holocaust through gracefully shot scenes by cinematographer Bogumił Godfrejów.

Delegation focuses on how these three close friends search for their own identities amidst the backdrop of its Polish setting. The structure of the trip, which is intended to create an emotional experience, intertwines with the confusion of what will happen when they return home. This dilemma creates a complex and dialectical dynamic between them: as their emotions and love for one another blur with the sadness they withhold, the trip begins to get an emotional hold of them. But that isn’t entirely caused by the past behind these settings. Although these young people undergo shocking experiences by going to such places, for the most part, that emotional pull they are going through is fueled by the longing to understand how life (and love) functions as they come of age.

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A still from Delegation, an official selection at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. (© Natalia Łączyńska / Berlinale)

These kids are taken from their homes in Israel to a place connected to their blood, yet it still seems alien to them. This is portrayed in a tragically beautiful way, where even its moments of bliss contain a hint of sadness. The moments that profoundly impact them are those where they try to hold their feelings for one another back. Jealousy, loneliness, and eventual separation appear in their paths, and when they come across the gripping and tragic nature of history, they don’t know how to respond to it. In the press notes, the director described it as “the significant gap between the grand drama of history and the small dramas of life”, and that characterization holds the key to Delegation’s emotional and touching core.

The film’s humanistic texture adds a layer of relatability that gets a hold of you while watching. I was fascinated by the curation of grounded, touching sensibilities from beginning to end. On one occasion, it got a tear out of me, and it was only because of a facial expression Neomi Harari’s character, Nitzan, made. Why? Because I believed in the characters, specifically her. And the facial expression she made, which presented happiness as armor while holding back the sadness, took me back to my years in high school. It was an expression I was familiar with and understood completely. The other two leads, Bavly and Lev Levin, also delivered strong performances, but I found myself connected more to her than the other two. However, there are plenty of scenes where Lev Levin and Bavly capture their respective characters’ angst and frustration amidst the loneliness they face or are afraid to confront.

Delegation ends with a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, a song I love and cherish greatly, which adds a small yet note-worthy layer to the narrative. The record had Ian Curtis singing a tribute to a dying relationship, expressing how, as the song’s third verse goes, “something so good, just can’t function no more”. This expression can be attached to these three high school friends’ slowly crumbling relationship. What comes next for them and whether they stay friends after their time spent in the army is a mystery. Yet, the part of their story that Delegation covers is mesmerizing and spirited, even if it contains some slight clichéd moments that arise from its coming-of-age and road trip genres.

Delegation premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on February 19-22, 2023. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews!

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