Film Review: Shelter

An ill-conceived espionage thriller that is neither fish nor fowl.
Specialty Releases

Menemsha Films has rolled up an impressive track record distributing such wonderful films as 1945, The Women’s Balcony, Natasha, Dough and the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, among many other original and unexpected Jewish and/or Israeli-themed films.

Regrettably, Eran Riklis’ Shelter is not one of them, awash as it is in an amalgam of genres, none of which is clearly defined, fleshed out or interwoven in any way that’s workable. It purports to be an espionage thriller, film noir, and tale of women adversaries bonding with homoerotic overtones—the latter thread bordering on gothic camp.

Adapted from Shulamit Hareven’s novel The Link, Shelter recounts the evolving relationship between retired Mossad Agent Naomi (Neta Riskin), who has been called out of retirement (issued a new gun and fake passport) to babysit Lebanese turncoat Israeli informer Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), now being hunted down by the Hezbellah. A bandaged Mona has had cosmetic surgery as part of her reinvention and the two women are holed up in an alleged safe house in Hamburg, Germany. This is the plan: Mona will heal, assume her new identity and within two weeks will escape to Canada. Mutual mistrust and suspicion abound as the enemy draws closer. Characters who may or may not be Palestinian and/or Israeli spies surface intermittently and the women, despite themselves, forge an uneasy alliance.

This is old hat through and through, though admittedly in other films of this ilk women are not at the narrative helm. The big problem here is that our distaff agents are not remotely credible as spies; neither has an intellectual or ideological fiber in her being. Some expressions of cynicism would have been refreshing. But that’s not to be, either. Instead, like stereotypic women writ large, all their actions and reactions are spawned in response to personal encounters and/or primal impulses.

Mona, for example, was betrayed by a very bad married Palestinian operative with whom she’s had a child. Said louse has absconded with the child. She had no choice but to come onboard the Israeli team. That’ll teach him. As for Naomi, we never find out how or why she became a Mossad agent. We do, however, learn that she lost her beloved husband (he took a bullet meant for her) and she never had the chance to conceive the child she so desperately wanted. Throughout the picture, Naomi is giving herself injections in the stomach in order (we assume) to induce greater fertility for artificial insemination that’s in the offing.

Mona and Naomi’s shared maternal instinct is the bonding adhesive. On her knees, Mona cups Naomi’s stomach and kisses it as a kind of benediction. At another point, Naomi surprises Mona with a party for her absent son on the occasion of his birthday (cake and candles included). The mommy fetish is alive and well in this one.

But hands down, the most grotesque scene features the two women pretending they are about to go clubbing as they try on wigs and paint their faces (eye shadow, lipstick, the works) carrying on like two schoolgirls on a sleepover. “I feel blonde today,” Mona intones. “Do you ever feel blonde?” Another absurdity: When Mona finally removes her bandages, her face hasn’t changed at all. Talk about a botched job. No one seems to notice.

Meanwhile, outside their totally non-protected safe house shielded from the world by glass doors that anyone could break into (yet another blatantly false detail), operatives on both sides are engaged in nefarious activities, with everyone double-crossing everyone else—though it’s never entirely clear who’s doing what to whom and it really doesn’t matter. The conclusion is totally predictable and we see it coming a mile away. Hint: It has something to do with the mother motif.

Click here for cast and crew information.