Delegation ‘Ha’Mishlahat’ (2023) ‘Berlinale’ Review: Asaf Saban’s feature debut, Outdoors (Bayit Bagalil), achieved acclaim for a good reason. Despite propping up the telltale beats of a straight-cut marital drama, the film etches a thoughtful, generation-spanning portrait of loss, desire, and angst. Saban, gifted with the ability to capture the heart of what drives his layered, intriguing characters, has lovingly crafted his second feature, The Delegation (Ha’Mishlahat), with skillful, measured mastery.
In Delegation (Ha’Mishlahat), the personal and the political clash in bittersweet ways, urging a group of adolescents to reckon with their desires concerning their place in the world. What sets Saban’s latest film apart from similar entries in the genre is its raw, unflinching dedication to unraveling layered personal identity, which is always tied to cultural tradition, and in this case, the weight of historical atrocities.
Until recently, Israeli students underwent the mandatory experience of delegations to Poland as a part of their educational curriculum that revolved around Holocaust studies. The occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the late 1930s charts a violent and heartbreaking trail of countless deaths. Furthermore, the subjugation of the Jews and the Polish population remains painfully fresh in our collective memories. The socio-political landscape in the aftermath of this event is incredibly complex to parse and demands a nuanced exploration from both a historical and humane perspective. Saban succeeds in depicting these tensions without succumbing to binary perspectives. Saban delves deeply into the many hues of cultural remembrance and how it colors the emotional landscapes of three Israeli students by focusing the narrative’s crux on one such educational trip.
Frisch (Yoav Bavly), whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, becomes our point of entry into Saban’s world, where his class embarks on a delegation to Poland before the end of the school term. While strictly a requirement for curricular purposes, the trip evolves into a life-altering experience for everyone involved, especially Frisch and his childhood friends, Nitzan (Neomi Harari) and Ido (Leib Lev Levin). Although the enormity of their cultural remembrance slowly seeps into their minds and hearts, they are, first and foremost, adolescents navigating an already-volatile transitional period marked with growing pains.
The quest for identity, where one is often unable to grasp who one truly is, feels especially heightened when you’re young. How would these sensations fare when faced with the heavy weight of cultural trauma, when one is pulled to confront it firsthand while standing in front of a memorial at Auschwitz?
Perhaps this is one of many reasons Nitzan instinctively takes a lone shoe from a memorial with her, conflicted about what she should do with such a startling reminder of the violence against Jewish people. This instinct is further complicated by the emotional confusion of harboring feelings for a dear friend. Nitzan likes Ido but is forced to helplessly watch him dating someone else from the sidelines, as the mere idea of a confession could crumble her already-fragile sense of self.
Unable to navigate these intense emotions on her own, Nitz closes herself off completely, refusing to let anyone inside her turbulent mindscape. An emotionally-charged moment of tenderness changes everything, and by the time Nitzan is able to breathe easier, we shift to the shy, thoughtful Frisch, who undergoes an experience that is both eye-opening and a catalyst for multifaceted angst. Friendships are tested, while the entire group is forced to reckon with their vulnerabilities, leaving everyone raw from the prospect of looking history and its aftereffects square in the face.
Delegation could very easily have devolved into a hollow shell of a film exploring the socio-cultural implications of the Holocaust on a young generation removed from the core experience. But Saban expertly weaves the personal and the political together, creating a compelling, heartfelt tale with meaningful stakes. When Frisch decides to diverge from his group, we worry for him, unsure as to what he might experience in a country with such an intricate, volatile historical past, which still haunts the present to some capacity. Such a politically-tinted sequence has the same weight as Frisch’s emotional turmoil when battling feelings of alienation and self-doubt. Bavly anchors his character into something achingly real, delivering a subtle, standout performance that greatly improves the ambit of Saban’s film.
The rest of the cast play their parts to near perfection, especially Ezra Dagan as Yosef, who infuses the narrative with a genuine brand of earnestness. There is nothing innately naturalistic about the way the adolescents are portrayed, sans affectation or pretense. They are flawed, confused young adults harboring a sea of emotions that manifest in interesting ways. This is the raw appeal of Delegation, a film so heartfelt and unabashed in its belief in the goodness of humanity that it makes for a bittersweet yet essential watch.