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Amazing Grace – UK Jewish Film Festival 2023 (Film Review)

3 min read
Two men stand facing the camera. One man is about eighteen with curly hair. The other is slightly older and smoking a cigarette

Amazing Grace (The Israeli Fund for Film Promotion)

Amazing Grace is a heart-wrenching yet riveting release from influential director Amos Guttman. 

Originally released in 1992, this was the last film from Guttman who often created semi-autobiographical works. Guttman is one of the most well-known LGBTQIA+ filmmakers in , and is remembered today as an important figure in the country's queer history. He died from AIDS a year after the film's release, cutting his promising career short. It is emotional just to see his new digitally restored film being shown to an audience exactly 30 years after his death.

The film follows two gay Israeli men, and is the first and only film so far from the country that deals with AIDS. 30-year-old Thomas (Sharon Alexander) returns to Israel after a stint in New York where he tried to make it as a musician and is now skint. He must also grapple with his AIDS diagnosis and conceal his condition from his family. Upon his return, he does not expect to meet 18-year-old Jonathan (Gal Hoyberger) who quickly falls in love with him. 

Their relationship is tinged with fear and secrecy, as were many same-sex relationships in Israel at the time. After all, same-sex relationships between two consenting adults were only decriminalised in the late 80s and social attitudes were extremely varied. Both Jonathan and Thomas rely on drugs to deal with the world around them, creating a sanctuary in their homes where they are not judged. 

Their families do not pretend to understand their attraction to men, and view it more as a lifestyle else than anything else. Thomas' mother and grandmother do not know that he is dying from his disease, and he must hide his suffering to stop them worrying. At a time where being HIV-positive was essentially a death sentence with no known successful treatment, the shame and fear around the disease is palpable. Despite their lack of understanding, there is a constant sense of love between the family. The sexual tension between the two men is often more compelling than the familial bickering, however, and feels slightly less developed. 

Guttman explores the underrepresented queer world of Israel in Amazing Grace, most notably through a trip to an underground gay bar. There is a strange mix of sexual liberation and political tension as the men eye each other up and end up getting into fights. It is a far cry from the queer-filled Tel Aviv today where there is almost an overabundance of LGBTQIA+ clubs.

The film is often reminiscent of recent releases such as Levan Akin's And Then We Danced, where two men's affection is expressed in darkly lit rooms away from prying eyes. Guttman was in many ways ahead of his time, especially considering he is still the only director to discuss AIDS in Israel. The story sometimes feels stagnant and circling, but the final ten minutes are truly crushing. Young Jonathan is left heart-broken but leaves the audience with a sense of hope as he smiles at the camera with a delicate smile. 

Overall, Amazing Grace is packed with sensuality and sadness. It touches on topics still considered taboo and deserves a spot as one of the best queer films to come out of the 90s.

Amazing Grace screened at UK Jewish Film Festival 2023