As portrayed in the biopic Yona, poet Yona Wallach was a literary rock star—extroverted, openly bisexual, and prone to public feuds with her contemporaries. She was also mentally ill, and at certain points in her life she was institutionalized; during at least one stay she served as a guinea pig for psychological experiments involving LSD. Yona, which screens at this year's Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, dramatizes her life from the mid-60s to the mid-70s (she died of breast cancer in 1985, at age 41). Like such artist biopics as Lust for Life and An Angel at My Table, the movie suggests that Wallach used her art to channel her chaotic experience, and that the power of her verse sprang from her emotional need.
Writer-director Nir Bergman (who worked extensively on the Israeli TV series In Therapy and some of its foreign remakes) frames Yona as a psychological portrait, devoting much attention to Wallach's time in treatment. That's a wise decision, because he demonstrates little feel for poetry. His prosaic filmmaking often feels ill suited to a subject like Wallach, who wrote in free verse and used metaphorical imagery. (Bergman makes some attempts at expressionist stylization in sequences illustrating Wallach's hallucinations, but these feel belabored.) The recitations of Wallach's poems fail to convey their power, coming across as illustrations of her psychological states rather than expressions of creative feeling.
Another problem is Naomi Levov's unfocused, at times amateurish performance as Wallach. Perhaps Bergman cast an unknown actress in the role so that the character's personality wouldn't be overwhelmed by a movie star's persona, but Levov lacks the acting chops to inhabit the part. In her performance Wallach's bursts of madness seem more like a child's tantrums, and her flights of literary inspiration look more like a high school student writing an 11th-hour term paper.
For a movie about someone who lived so passionately, Yona is rather dry, yet it succinctly explains Wallach's background and rise to fame. Bergman dramatizes Tel Aviv's literary scene in the 1960s with a few broad strokes, illustrating the tensions between the established literati and the younger, more radical crowd to which Wallach belonged. He also provides useful context regarding psychiatric practices in Israel at the time. The film is so precise in certain details that I wished it were more thorough in approaching Wallach's poetry. v