An ambitious attempt to recreate the early days of Israel, Kedma offers a stark, dispiriting account of the fates of immigrants who find themselves in the middle of an all-out war. First seen aboard the Kedma, a rusty, crowded freighter, the immigrants are largely concentration camp survivors. They communicate in a variety of languages, mixing Polish, Russian and Yiddish to talk about how they survived the Holocaust. Janusz (Andrei Kashkar) keeps a protective eye on Rosa (Helena Yaralova), who somehow escaped from Siberia. Newlyweds Menahem (Menachem Lang), a Russian cantor, and Hanka (Veronica Nicole) face the future apprehensively.
Ferried to the shores of Palestine in lifeboats, the immigrants are guided by Jewish partisans past British soldiers patroling the dunes. When the British open fire, Mussa (Juliano Mer) splits the immigrants into two groups. Klibanov (Moni Moshonov), an Israeli guide and teacher who speaks Russian, tries to help the bewildered Menahem and Hanka. After sprinting away from the shore into the hills, Mussa allows his group a few minutes' rest by a campfire.
Klibanov takes Menahem and Hanka to the partisan campsite. They pass a group of displaced Arabs fleeing the country. An angry fight breaks out. At the campsite, Janusz and the other immigrants are given rudimentary lessons in fighting. They are brought to an Arab stronghold atop a hill. Led by Mussa and Milek (Tomer Ruso), his second-in-command, the immigrants charge the Arabs. Many are wounded in the ensuing battle.
Mussa and Milek pursue the retreating Arabs. When Menahem is wounded, Mussa appropriates a donkey to carry him to a farmhouse. There, Yussef (Yussef Abu-Warda), a Palestinian, delivers a long, angry diatribe, cursing the Israelis and their future. When the immigrants, by now hardened veterans, return to camp, it's Janusz's turn to curse his fate, and his new country's destiny.
Most of the film takes place in barren, rocky exteriors that echo the harsh choices open to the characters. Director Amos Gitai employs an austere style, using long takes that unfold at a deliberate pace. This approach proves effective during the battle sequences, where the blood and chaos of fighting build a frightening momentum. In other scenes, especially when the immigrants are discussing their pasts, the endless shots seem more like a pretentious gimmick.
The most discouraging aspect of Kedma is Gitai's heavy-handed irony. The director telegraphs the injuries and deaths in the battle sequences, and ends his film with a prolonged bout of saber-rattling nihilism that feels sophomoric. Whether you agree with Gitai's views or not, the film's flaws make watching Kedma an unpleasant chore.