‘The Swimmer’ Review: Athlete Buckles Under High Stakes and Homophobia in Intriguing Israeli Drama

Writer-director Adam Kalderon has an eye for his Speedo-clad characters, yes, but also for his protagonist’s complex inner life

The Swimmer

“Some people believe in God,” declares Erez (an excellent Omer Perelman Striks) when he arrives at training camp to compete for Israel’s Olympic swim team. “I believe in Madonna.” And thus, both he and writer-director Adam Kalderon (“Marzipan Flowers”) announce their intentions with “The Swimmer”: neither plans to stay in his own lane.

Kalderon lingers so long on the swimmers’ bodies — in and out of their Speedos — that the movie could easily be taken for a cheerfully gratuitous indulgence. Which much of it is, and with no excuses. But if you can look past the shower scenes (and shaving scenes, and swimming scenes, and not-getting-much-sleep scenes), it suddenly becomes clear that he’s telling just as much as he’s showing.

If Erez has staked his personal ethos on Madonna, his trainers are focused on other directions entirely. “Swimming is an individual sport,” his severe coach Dima (Igal Reznik) warns, when he notices Erez eyeing his competitor Nevo (Asaf Jonas) in less than objective ways. “No friends.”

As Erez and Nevo get closer, Dima’s strict rules seem designed to control not only the athletes, but also the men they’re becoming outside of the pool. Though he has no problem with Nevo fancying female swimmer Maya (May Kurtz), he ruthlessly threatens to cut Erez from the team if he so much as flirts with another guy. Which is why Maya’s trainer Paloma (Nadia Kucher), who was once Israel’s youngest Olympian, has a motto all her own: “Competitive sports are a tragedy for the body. And the soul.”

Kalderon hints at the potential for tragedy right away, when Erez meets Nevo and confesses that he actually hates the water. He’s been pushed from birth for this moment, and neither his ultra-competitive father nor his trainers want to see the boy inside the body.

Erez tries to give them what they want, which is really just glory for themselves. But in this high-stakes environment, cracks are inevitable. So the question is: will he shatter under their pressure, or evolve into something else entirely?

The movie keeps us guessing, as cinematographer Ofer Inov shows off particularly impressive skills with so many deft fluctuations in tenor. When Erez walks down the camp’s dark hallways, the movie almost feels like a horror film. When he’s with Nevo, it becomes a volatile melodrama. Underwater scenes have a blue beauty that celebrates the sensuality Erez can’t seem to escape. And when he’s alone and most free, buoyed by the Penelopes’ synth-pop score, he becomes the star of a day-glo pop dream even Madonna would embrace.

Given that Kalderon juggles as many tones as Erez has moods, it’s tough to imagine how he could possibly wrap them all up. And yet he brings his hero, and all of us now cheering him on from the stands, to the perfect conclusion. Unveiling one of the best finales of the year, he turns his ambivalent swimmer into a superstar.

“The Swimmer” opens in NYC Oct. 7 and L.A. Oct. 14 via Strand Releasing.