By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 23, 2012 at 10:02AM
Coming off the heels of the formidable "Policeman," a harsh and damning critique of contemporary Israeli society, "Room 514" points a similar analytical eye on its country but comes up with little more than general arguments. Its overly familiar plot and substance weakens its voice and the movie almost seems like a faux-activist who can only muster up wonted statements with little unique insight. Sharon Bar-Ziv's debut is kept from sinking by its mighty performances, but its simplistic cinematic approach and oceans of dialogue seem more suited for a stage play than a movie.
Go-getter MP Anna (Asa Naifeld) is conducting a case against a tight knit battalion (nicknamed "The Samurai Wolves") that's being accused of unjustly assaulting a Palestinian civilian. Officer Nimrod refuses to cooperate, citing his lack of interest in being branded a traitor or a snitch, though does assure her that he had no part of what had happened. Meanwhile, Anna's sex-buddy Erez advises her to drop the investigation as it may end up being a much more complicated endeavor than she assumes -- in other words, with only three weeks left of active duty, why should she strike a hornet's nest now? But Anna is adamant, and eventually she manages to extract a testimony from Nimrod against his commanding officer Davidi, the main culprit. As the cross-examinations continue, Nimrod finds himself harassed by his fellow soldiers for his betrayal and Anna opens up a can of worms that produce dire consequences.
The fact that most assessments of "Room 514" contain comparisons to the Jack Nicholson/Tom Cruise military drama "A Few Good Men" should give a good idea of how this plot develops, but even those not fluent in Rob Reiner's highly quotable film will probably find much ease in predicting how the narrative transpires. Originality is always hard to come by and it seems fruitless to harp on the story's lack of it -- after all, it's the journey that counts. The filmmaker's true intent is to hook audiences with the intense back-and-forth moral arguments and hopefully have the proceedings in the titular space be a metaphor for Israeli society as a whole. Unfortunately the latter ambition is a huge stretch and it's difficult to pull anything substantial from the cut-and-dry dramatics; the scenes serve little more than engaging moments as opposed to enlightening comments on the country's social politics. The case that the movie is centered around -- a few overzealous officers using their position's power to hassle a man simply for being Palestinian -- is absolutely timely, but the squabble hits broad, generic strokes without ever piercing the heart of the dilemma. Anna fights with an outsider's PC perspective while Davidi uses her lack of field work experience against her -- clashing outlooks that are both universal and topical, but the filmmaker barely scratches the surface of each person's moral viewpoints. There's a neutral-ground distance that seems to humor the gray area of the problem, but neither side is given anything deeper than base arguments.
Though the structure's rhythm is blatantly repetitive (Black and white scene of an isolated Anna, interrogation, Anna and Erez's affair, rinse and repeat), the talent in front of the camera are great and the investigation "Room 514" is built on is engaging. Bar-Ziv locks his camera onto his characters' faces, often refusing reaction shots by letting a scene play out almost solely on the mug of one character. This gives the film a very fluid feel, and the more intense situations find strength thanks to the uninterrupted style. Still, the deliberately simple aesthetic (or almost lack of one) combined with the entirely dialogue-driven script seem better fit for the theater than celluloid. Bar-Ziv seems to be very interested in the nature of language and the operative way we use it to manipulate present and past atrocities, but his use of the medium to portray this is incredibly unimaginative.
Regardless of its overfamiliarity and generally passive approach to filmmaking, "Room 514" is decent enough, and those with lowered expectations will derive some delight with the verbal tug-of-war that the it provides. Substance, however, must be found elsewhere. [C-]