‘Human Resources Manager’ lacks personality

Eran Riklis’s latest film may has won many prizes, but it may not win your heart.

movie 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
movie 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
3 StarsThe Human Resources Manager (ISR) Directed by Eran Riklis.Written by Noah Stollman, based on the novel by A. B. Yehoshua. 104 minutes. Hebrew title: Shlichato shel ha’Memuna al Mashabei Anosh In Hebrew, Romanian and English. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
There are moments that work in Eran Riklis’s The Human Resources Manager, an adaptation of the A. B. Yehoshua novel known in English as A Woman in Jerusalem, but there aren’t enough of them. Both the book and the movie tell an ambitious story that tries to say something relevant about the place of Israelis in the world and the place of foreigners in Israel. But the problem with this film (which is quite faithful to the novel) is that it tries to focus on characters who function as symbols as much or sometimes more than as individuals. In spite of excellent acting and an intriguing storyline, this film is ultimately disappointing.
That may be a strange thing to say about a movie that won Israel’s top cinematic honor this year, the Ophir Award, and also received awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay (by Noah Stollman) and Best Supporting Actress (Rosina Kambus). But so many other considerations can come into choosing what film wins a prize, that this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The film also won the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival.
It focuses on the human resources manager (Mark Evanir) of a large Jerusalem bakery (think Angel or Berman) who suddenly has a huge crisis on his hands when a cleaning woman at the bakery is killed in a terror attack. He didn’t even know the woman, a temporary worker named Yulia from a former Eastern bloc nation. She has no relatives in Israel, and her body has been left unclaimed in the morgue, along with a pay slip from the bakery. When he discovers that the woman had been fired before the bombing, he doesn’t see why it should be his problem – or the bakery’s. But when it turns out that a reporter (Guri Alfi) for one of the weeklies is planning to write a prominent expose of the incident and to vilify the bakery and the human resources manager for their inhumanity to this woman, it does become his responsibility.
The widow (Gila Almagor) of the bakery’s founder decides to make the best of this public relations mess by sending the human resources manager to accompany the woman’s body to her home country and deliver it to her family there. The reporter tags along. The film then turns into a road movie where anything that can go wrong does go wrong. The chatty Israeli consul (Rosina Kambus) and her cute but ineffectual husband aren’t much help. The human resources manager finds Yulia’s husband, but it turns out that the couple have divorced, and her angry, thuggish teenage son (Noah Silver) is not old enough to sign his permission for the body to be released for burial. So they start off on a journey through the country to her village to find her elderly mother. It’s reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine, another tragic-comic road movie with a body, but infinitely more bleak.
That’s the basic set-up. You might wonder why I haven’t given any of the character’s names, other than the deceased worker’s, and that’s because the characters don’t have names. Just as in the book, they are simply identified by a title: The Human Resources Manager, the Consul, etc. Yehoshua has used symbolic names in other works in the past (in Six Days and a Child, for example, most of the characters have names that are the Hebrew words for animals), and here perhaps he is saying that just as we often don’t remember or note the names of foreign workers, we are just generic management-level workers ourselves.
But it’s a problem when characters lack individuality. We are told that the human resources manager is going through a divorce, and we see a scene with him and his resentful ex (Raymond Amsalem), and another with him and his daughter. But it’s hard to know exactly what the mission to bury Yulia’s body means to him. Is it a chance at redemption? Or is he a workaholic who is once again letting down the women in his life?
Mark Evanir gives a low-key, thoughtful performance as this lowkey, apparently thoughtful man, but we never get to know him well enough to understand who he is. And that leaves an emptiness at the center of this film, just where its heart should be.