By Christopher Bell | The Playlist June 13, 2014 at 8:31AM
While it's absolutely an important issue that deserves coverage, we've already heard nearly every angle of the Israel-Palestine conflict seventy times over—so much so that we barely have a clue about their other dilemmas. One of these issues starting to come to light is the large economic disparity that exists among the Israelis themselves, resulting in many protests against the abnormally high cost of living. In his assured debut "Policeman," journalist/novelist Nadav Lapid tackles this very problem with a reserved strength rarely seen in a filmmaker so green.
Similar to its NYFF acquaintance "Sleeping Sickness," Lapid's feature starts with one storyline before abruptly switching gears and following new characters. Our first narrative follows officer Yaron (Yiftach Klein), an expecting father and walking representation of masculinity. As he comforts his wife with a soothing leg massage, he warns her not to tell anybody that their baby may come at any time, but in an amusing follow-up, the next few scenes have him casually spilling the beans every chance he gets. But it's not just for a laugh: this string of moments says a lot about the man, one who knows the right thing to do but despite trying to be a "leader" is constantly swayed by his pack's mentality. Pretty soon we learn that he and his team—a group of anti-terrorist agents—botched an operation and ended up killing innocent people. Without batting an eyelid, they decide to place sole blame on their co-worker who has cancer, as his medical treatment will likely lead to a swift acquittal. Yaron volunteers to be the one to confront him about this and the two hammer it out like it’s nothing. He doesn’t really give his buddy a choice, but seeing as everyone will be off the hook in the end, it makes the most sense. With the agreement in place, the lens lingers on our hero, seemingly preoccupied for the rest of the scene as they sit in silence. Klein uses the quieter moments well, externalizing his inner conflicts in a subtle way. He plays it off well so his friends can’t see it, but when he is alone and lets his guard down, we can.
Broadening the scope a bit, the filmmaker turns toward Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a well-off mid-20s thinker who just happens to witness her car being vandalized (read: destroyed) by a group of native Israeli punks. She doesn't seem to know how to immediately react to this incredible scene, though something about this event causes her to become a revolutionary anarchist. Together with three others (including the handsome faction shepherd Natanel, suavely played by Michael Aloni), they practice their shooting skills in anticipation of their grand plot to take billionaires hostage at an upcoming wedding. It's this eventuality that pits both lead characters against each other, leading to a shaking and extremely penetrating finale. Pelzig plays her character as if she's in a trance, boldly reciting damning stanzas and hurling coldhearted threats at the wealthy prisoners. Unlike Yaron, Shira's eyes don't show a speck of doubt, though it's debatable who is more frightening: the one who does bad and knows it or the ignorant one who has no clue that her behavior is vile.
Though Lapid directly confronts the strife between citizens, the structure of his narrative works similarly by slapping together two separate stories leading up to their brutal confrontation. A strong, topical script can work on its own without any pizazz, but the filmmaker's insistence on using the form to strengthen his ideas (something that most in the medium, especially novices, don't do) makes for a much more sophisticated and uniquely moving picture. Every stroke the director makes is well thought out, from the general anatomy of the movie right down to its blocking and framing: in one scene, a revolutionary and his father have a droll conversation separated by a wall, with one in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom. The filmmaker constructs this in a static shot with a room on each side and the dividing wall in center frame. It obviously stresses the distance between the two, but it's kept from being overreaching due to such a dissonant and uncomfortable placing of the camera. It suggests something deeper than just a father and son with little to say to one another; it forebodes and enacts a feeling of anxiety.
There’s a faint whiff of early Michael Haneke (mostly “71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance”) permeating the entirety of “Policeman,” especially with its explosive bursts of violence and general coldness. But unlike other disciples of the Austrian professor, it never feels like it’s aping him but instead working with the same mindset; driving along on a parallel road. The director’s detachment from the characters also enables him to portray them as complex individuals (he’s less interested in making them likable, more so in making them interesting) instead of hero and villain caricatures.
It's certainly not a Wellesian debut, but a first-time filmmaker having such a kinship with the medium right out of the gate is something very remarkable. There's room for some polishing, but mark our words: if Nadav Lapid continues working, he'll be raking in some top awards in the near future. Avoiding easy answers and engaging on various levels, "Policeman" is exactly the kind of film that makes one excited about the art again. [B+]
This review is a reprint of the one that ran during the 2011 New York Film Festival.