One of the funniest, truest films ever made about being young, female and at the bottom of the food chain in a rigid, impersonal organization, Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation dazzles with its believable dialogue, spot-on acting, careful plotting and subversive black humor. The movie, which is about women soldiers at an IDF base in the Negev, won the top award for international feature films and the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and is being billed as MASH for the 21st century. It’s a mock epic that pokes fun at the smallness of the roles these young women are confined to take.
While the movie is filled with inside jokes – the audience I saw it with in Tel Aviv laughed hard at many army references – it’s more than just a farce about military bureaucracy, although it is a brilliant takedown of the idiocies of office culture. It’s a story about how young women’s spirits are broken by the world if they don’t look out for themselves.
Mercifully, though, there are no easily defined heroes and villains.
The young heroines are often their own worst enemies, and you’ll laugh at them as much as with them. And although the setting is military, it’s not a war movie. A few firearms are brandished, but the most lethal weapon turns out to be a staple gun.
Zero Motivation is a rare breed of comedy in that it is genuinely suspenseful, so I’ll try to describe it as best I can without revealing any spoilers. Zohar (Dana Ivgy), is a tough soldier who is inseparable from her best friend, Daffi (Nelly Tagar). Daffi is a gentle soul who can barely make it to the bus station on time to return to their hated Negev base after the weekend. Daffi has a dream that becomes a magnificent obsession – to get a transfer to the military headquarters in Tel Aviv (the Kirya). When a new female recruit, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), arrives, Daffi is convinced – with no official confirmation – that her transfer has come through.
But things don’t quite work out as planned for anyone, even for Zohar, whose only ambition, other than to stay close to Daffi, is to break records playing Minesweeper. Zohar and Daffi find themselves at odds with their superior, an ambitious, humorless officer named Rama (Shani Klein), who decorates her office with framed photos of female leaders such as Margaret Thatcher. But the system isn’t all in Rama’s favor, even though she has these girls to boss around. Rama is plump and earnest, not as smooth as the male officers she tries to impress. Zohar, Daffi and the other female soldiers under her command – there is a pair (Helli Twito and Meytal Gal Suisa) who sing Israeli hit songs in grating harmony all day, and a creepily self-possessed Russian named Irena (Tamara Klingon) – aren’t the easiest support staff to manage, to put it mildly. The interactions among these characters say more about class and ethnicity in Israel than many overtly political films have.
Any movie about female soldiers will have to deal with sexual politics in the army, and in Israel in general, and Zero Motivation tackles this subject head on, so to speak. There’s little I can write about this without revealing the film’s biggest laugh, but suffice it to say the script is dead on about the ways in which male soldiers use their warrior status to impress, manipulate and abuse young women. The movie never gets preachy though. Lavie proves that humor is the best weapon to take down these smug, gun-toting princes.
The actors are uniformly wonderful, and the standout is Tagar as the relentlessly selfdramatizing, cluelessly optimistic Daffi. Ivgy, in a less showy role, gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from her. She is often cast in very heavy dramas, but here she proves she’s a comic at heart.
The late New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael loved irreverent, dark comedies like Zero Motivation, and as I watched it, I thought that if she could come back to earth for one last screening, this would be the movie she should see. There’s no higher praise I can offer.