Cops meet kids in the new Israel
Young Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s Policeman/Ha-shoter (in Hebrew, with English subtitles) is a first feature that boldly takes on two timely and controversial subjects in Israel: police brutality and social unrest. After two segments devoted separately to these elements, the film brings them together in a violent confrontation in which anti-terrorist special police sent in to stop the kidnapping of billionaires at a wedding party emerge as essentially terrorists themselves. Explosive material, and an exciting finale. Lapid knows how to bring scenes to life. But he still needs to improve in the writing and editing departments because the three segments do not interrelate smoothly and tellingly. In fact they barely go together at all.
The character we meet first and get closest to is Yaron (Yiftach Klein), the most macho of a macho unit of elite antiterrorist Israeli police. We see him at length exercising, then massaging his pregnant wife, then hanging out with his team. Their targets are usually Palestinians and there’s some sort of legal case in which they’re being held liable for collateral killings of Arab family members. One of the team members appears to have cancer, and Yaron asks him to take the rap, on the assumption that his treatments will exempt him from going on trial. Is it possible there’s the further assumption he may die and therefore is expendable?
The antiterrorist cops engage in an exaggerated machismo that’s homoerotic and slightly juvenile, hugging and high-fiving all the time, caressing their pistols in front of cute girls and calling each other “warrior.” Yaron’s pride in fatherhood — another proof of virility besides his muscles and dangerous job — is underlined by the way he boasts of his wife’s being about to give birth, even posing in front of a mirror holding somebody else’s baby to see how he’ll look as a dad. The men show off their support of their emaciated, ill member, cutting short a cycling ride to stay within his capacity, promising to take him to the hospital for an important test, and all playfully throwing him into the sea when they go for a swim. Lapid adopts an intense physicality in these early sequences.
When he moves on to the angry young bourgeois revolutionaries the concern is less macho and physical and more esthetic. They are led by Natanel (Michael Aloni), who’s as beautiful and blond (and slightly sickly) as Yaron is brutish and ordinary. His co-leader is a small poetess, Shira (Yaara Pelzig), who’s all attitude. In fact she spends most of her time pouting and putting down the other guys (Shira, she hints, is the one they “all love”) and repeating lines from a revolutionary declaration she is planning on reading to the media at the height of their operation.
This segment is introduced with a bridging scene in which Shira passively watches a group of leather punks totally demolish a small car, which turns out to be hers. She may applaud this gesture because the car is paid for by her parents, whom she despises, but the scene makes no particular sense and underlines the film’s lack of good links.
ven the billionaire wedding is a bit awkward because it is staged and shot to look quite rinky-dink (perhaps it’s meant satirically?). But once Natanel, Shira, and their little band emerge from their disguises and start terrorizing the party and seizing its main members as prisoners, things become compelling and energetic. When the kidnappers are all together with their prisoners in what looks like a parking garage and notify the press, Yaron and his team are called upon to intervene, following an advance guard of two fake press photographers who take photos of the kidnappers for the cops to use to identify them when they break in. In the event that’s hardly useful. The killings are pretty indiscriminate. Before that one of the young terrorists impulsively kills one of the billionaires. This act further highlights the relationship between the killer and his father, a veteran leftist who has come along for one last revolutionary tango but has second thoughts, as do others.
Lapid has Shira underline the link between the elite police and the young extremists by repeatedly yelling in a megaphone “Policemen, you are oppressed too!” But this is mocked by Yaron, whose new problem is dealing with the unheard-of fact that their enemy targets this time are not Arabs but Jews.
In a statement by the director published when the film was shown at the Workshop section of this year’s Cannes Festival, he declared that Israel was “socialist, basically egalitarian” in the Sixties and Seventies when “political terrorism rose in western Europe,” but now despite the way it’s masked by facing the Palestinians as a “common enemy,” Israel today “has the widest economical gaps in the Western world” and “below the surface, boils a rage and a feeling of abuse.” Policeman, he suggested, is meant to bring this below-the-surface rage to a head in its dramatic finale.
Policeman is more interesting as a timely artifact than as a finished film. Its awkward construction and imbalance in characters — Yaron is far more fully explored than the young revolutionaries — keep it from working structurally or artistically. Alissa Simon of Variety views the film as smashing together “two types of tribalism” and suggests that the punks who trash Shira’s car and the lesbians and artists she meets at the nightclub the night before the operation are other tribes. Simon comments that Policeman “has a conceptual rigor that doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing or even a smooth narrative whole.” I think Policeman is drawing attention for its current and provocative subject matter rather than for its execution. “Conceptual rigor” is a slightly misleading term since the film is not so well conceived as a film, despite its bold thinking about national issues.
Several writers have described the acting as stylized, at least on the part of the revolutionaries. This is probably true, and it ill fits with the intimacy of Yaron’s scenes at home. There are some good images outdoors and during the violent finale, helped by the cinematography of Shai Goldman, who shot The Band’s Visit.
Lapid wrote the script of Policeman at an earlier Festival de Cannes Residence, and the film debuted in 2011 at Locarno (where it won a special jury prize) and was shown at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in October 2011.