Sunday, 10 January 2016

Review: Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Saxon Logan's thoroughly absorbing "Sylvia: Tracing Blood" tells the story of Sylvia Raphael: a woman with a secret life, comprising triple identities, who went on to become one of Mossad's most effective agents.

Saxon travelled far and wide to interview family, friends, a former lover, heads of security and one man greatly affected by the actions of the organisation she worked for. The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre led Sylvia to the town of Lillehammer in Norway, where Mossad planned to kill Ali Hassan Salameh: the man behind the Black September atrocity.

During the course of this riveting human interest story, we encounter Sylvia's brother Bunty; her widower Annaeus Schjodt; Chico Bouchikhi - renowned musician, founder of The Gypsy Kings and brother of the man mistakenly killed in Lillehammer - her former lover Sunday Times correspondent Jon Swain and other friends and associates who share their memories of her.

Through their eyes, we learn of her early years; her graduation as a teacher and subsequent move to Israel where she lived on a Kibbutz; how she assumed the identity of a Canadian photojournalist named Patricia Roxborough and her work for Mossad which involved many dangerous situations, culminating in a prison sentence for conspiracy to commit an assassination.

Sylvia's great beauty; her self control and strong character, together with her work as a highly skilled operative are all discussed, even touching on her gallows humour during the final months of her battle against Leukaemia.

The very best film making and cinema educates us and moves us, and "Sylvia: Tracing Blood" scores so very highly in both departments.

Witness the approach to her hometown as magisterial photography takes us through the unforgiving beauty of 'The Valley Of Desolation'; Bunty's visit to the old family homestead evokes an almost Checkovian element where he joyfully discovers the Aga is still there, and calls to mind the ghosts of the Family’s past. Jon Swain's arrival at the Paris apartment where he and Sylvia shared a home, with him ironically unknowing his girl-friend’s vocation.

The past re-visited, invoking happy memories, but also a great sadness as the stepping back to times gone by throws us back to the present with a gaping hole that can never be filled.

Add to this, the director's often tear-inducing voice-over narration, and you have a documentary film that leaves an indelible mark.
It's also a beautifully balanced work, allowing us to appreciate why Sylvia enchanted so many people, but never losing sight of the fact that her story regretfully includes the death of an innocent man. Praise too, for the sterling work put in by Saxon's team: Helena Grier Rautenbach's superlative score which is thoroughly deserving of a soundtrack album; Eliot Haigh's endlessly inventive photography, capturing the contrasting beauty of old world terrains and contemporary exotic locations, and Bernard Bruwer's brilliant editing which is amongst the very best I've seen in many a long day. Careers of great substance await this trio. One other notable feature of this film and its production is the director's will-do attitude, overcoming obstacles - love the way he and his crew enter a Norwegian top security prison, having previously been denied permission to do so - en route to get the whole picture.

I've been lucky enough to see the long version of this documentary film which runs for 1 hr 47m 30s, and you can be sure I'll be including further coverage on Wonderland in the future, as there's so much to take in here, a single viewing cannot even begin to do it justice.

For now, I confidently predict "Sylvia: Tracing Blood" will have a long and acclaimed life. A triumph, no less.