'Policeman' is not very arresting

Nadav Lapid's new film has a few glimmers of cinematic magic, but overall it lacks suspense, drama and a plausible plot.

Policeman film 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Policeman film 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Awriter I know has a theory that when screenwriters have “original” movie ideas – that is, when they make films that aren’t based on their own experiences or someone else’s that they have gathered through research – the films end up being false and derivative. That’s because when most scriptwriters think they are being creative and ground-breaking, they are simply lifting bits and pieces from other movies they’ve seen.
This theory came to mind as I watched Nadav Lapid’s meticulously crafted and stylish film Policeman. The movie has enjoyed great success, winning the screenplay and cinematography prizes at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. It was also shown at the New York Film Festival last month, a rare honor for an Israeli film. But while I admired many aspects of the movie, it left me utterly cold. The characters all seemed like symbolic constructs, each meant to prove a specific point. They lacked the quirks that make characters vivid and compelling. When the characters are like paper cut-outs, it’s hard to care what happens to them. In the end, Policeman has little suspense and, as is characteristic of such neatly symbolic films, virtually no laughs.
The film is about a member of a crack anti-terrorism police unit and a band of upper-class Jewish revolutionaries he is eventually ordered to subdue. The plot is split into distinct and highly uneven sections – the first about the cop, the second about the activists, and the third the confrontation that brings them together.
It opens promisingly enough, with Yaron (Yiftach Klein in an accomplished, mesmerizing performance), the policeman, exercising with members of his unit, then coming home to his very pregnant wife. The scene where he tries to cheer her up (she is exhausted, or depressed) by singing and dancing to the song “Radio Hazak” is brilliantly realized and is one of several moments of cinematic magic scattered throughout the film.
Lapid keeps us off balance in these scenes, hinting at something sinister and corrupt beneath the surface when Yaron goes to a backyard barbecue with his colleagues. One member of the unit has a brain tumor, and the others have decided he must take the blame for the killing of Palestinian civilians. When the dying cop resists taking the rap, Yaron persuades him, gently but firmly, and establishes the moral depravity of these police. Gradually, the cops become such repugnant and stereotypical louts that you can only wonder why someone would want them to be the focus of a movie. Particularly grating is a scene in which Yaron flirts aggressively with a teenage waitress (who looks younger than the 15 years she claims to be), taking out his gun and asking, “Do you want to touch it?” Maybe this is what police are like when they’re off duty, but it didn’t ring true. It seemed more like the way people who hate police imagine they would behave.
Yaron is a full-fledged character rather than a cartoon in just a few moments: when he is with his wife and when he picks up a friend’s baby and stands in front of the mirror holding it, trying to get used to the sight of himself with a baby. Perhaps if the entire movie were devoted to this man and who he really is, we might come to understand something crucial about him and see beyond the macho façade.
Then the film shifts to a cell of left-wing Jewish would-be terrorists in Tel Aviv. Although Lapid has been hailed as something of a prophet, since this film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival just a little while before the social-justice tent protests got going, these characters and their dreams have virtually no similarity to the real social protesters. The actual demonstrators have been extremely peaceful and patiently protested such issues as unfairly high housing and food prices. But these fictitious middle-class terrorists reveal what films Lapid drew on when he wrote the screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard’s movies, such as Week End, Masculin Feminin, and especially, La Chinoise. But unlike those films, in which the characters have a bit of life and there are actually a few jokes (in La Chinoise, the young revolutionaries murder the wrong person because they write down his hotel room number incorrectly and miss the evil industrialist they are targeting), here they are pallid and unconvincing.
They are led by Natanel (Michael Aloni), a beautiful, sickly boy, but their real fire comes from the extremely angry Shira (Yaara Pelzig). They plot the revolution from her parents’ spectacular Tel Aviv apartment, and she frets over every word of the manifesto she writes about the poor rising up and the rich dying, which truly sounds like dialogue from a number of Godard films. It’s hard to imagine anyone caring much that Oded (Michael Moshonov), one of the other members of the group, loves Shira who loves Natanel who loves himself. When Oded’s father, a failed revolutionary played by Menashe Noy, tries to stop Oded from going along with the others to kidnap some industrialists at a Jerusalem wedding, you know he’s going to fail because the film is like a mathematical formula that can only be solved if the two sides confront each other.
The scene of the great day of rage can be plausible only to someone who has no understanding of Israeli life. Even the most modest weddings have security guards, and a wedding of rich VIPs would be full of them. And it is quite likely that many of the male wedding guests would also be carrying hand guns. It is ludicrous to think that a group of spoiled Tel Aviv 20-somethings could actually subdue an entire Jerusalem wedding hall, and I say this as someone who has attended many weddings in the Holy City. Plausibility may not be the point, but it’s hard not to think of these issues as you watch the film.
The director may have been inspired to make this film in order to stage the final confrontation between the revolutionaries and the fat cats. One of his best moves here is that the bride (Rona Lee Shim’on), angry at having her wedding disrupted, forces the terrorists to take her along, although her father is the target. Finally, we see a character displaying an emotion we can relate to. The bride is so much livelier than any of the pale revolutionaries, that I was hoping she would bring some much-needed fun to the proceedings. But this isn’t a movie for, or by, anyone who wants to enjoy themselves in a theater.
A fight between elite anti-terrorism policemen and children with guns is like a remake of the short cartoon Bambi vs. Godzilla (the title tells the whole story) without the wit. Except for a few brief and wonderful moments early on with the policeman, this is a lifeless filmschool exercise, an A+ final project that is utterly uninvolving. But the director has made it with such style, that he has lulled many into thinking it is a great film.