The Kindergarten Teacher

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

For Filmmaker, Anthony Kaufman talks with Nadav Lapid about his “astoundingly assured two feature films” and notes in his introduction:

After winning a jury prize at Locarno, Policeman [2011], the bifurcated story of an elite counterterrorism unit who confront a group of anti-capitalist Israeli revolutionaries, won 15 awards at festivals around the world. The film’s unique structure—the first half is about the police; the second about the terrorists—is just one of its many skillful constructions. The Kindergarten Teacher [2014], which premiered as a Special Screening in Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar, is another precisely conceived and intricately photographed film, about a young teacher who becomes obsessed with the poetry of a 5-year-old pupil and sets out to protect him from a father and society that are too superficial to appreciate him.

I gathered a number of reviews of Policeman, currently screening at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, in 2011 and James Kang‘s collected many more at Critics Round Up. Its current CRU rating: 91. Here, then, let’s turn to The Kindergarten Teacher.

Like Policeman, it “can also be understood as a film about Israel,” suggests Ben Kenigsberg at, “but it’s a slipperier piece of work. A teacher, Nira (Sarit Larry), becomes convinced that her that her five-year-old student Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) is a kind of modern Mozart: He composes poems conceptually far beyond his age. (He conjures lines like ‘the moment of a parting is a moment of death.’) Nira writes his poetry down and tries to persuade his family to publish it. She takes Yoav to a reading and presses him to join a world that vastly exceeds his understanding.”

“From here,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, “the movie could most likely be one of two things: a heartwarming tale of the woman’s guidance of this preternaturally creative child (Sundance version) or the chilling tale of a woman’s exploitation of that child (Euro festival version). But no, Lapid walks a tender tightrope that is a subtle, very unusual middle course: moving and disturbing. His secret weapon isn’t the boy, whose apathetic face refuses to show how much or little he cares for his teacher, but rather Sarit Larry, who plays the teacher. Long married and a mother of two grown children, the teacher seems relatively satisfied, and in her work and in close-ups of her smiling eyes of incredible depth radiates the ideal school teacher’s pleasure in and appreciation of children. And yet Lapid writes and directs her behavior around the boy in a distinctly off manner, tainted with small amounts of sadistic lecturing, casual lies, and other subtle signals that suggest an unsteady inner life.”

Lapid “not only makes this rich and rather strange tale convincing on screen, but he does so with the aesthetic prowess of a first-class auteur, combining a realistic, at times documentary approach with cinematic flights-of-fancy that are often thrilling to behold,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter.

“Overall,” writes Boyd van Hoeij for Indiewire, “the film is about both the void that poetry—and, more generally, beauty and art—can fill in one’s life. It’s also study of how the few sensitive souls aware of what art can do aren’t necessarily those able to make it themselves.”

“The world no longer appreciates grace and individuality: Is that really all there is to the message behind The Kindergarten Teacher?” wonders Jay Weissberg in Variety. “After the far tougher implications of Policeman, one looks in vain for deeper meaning in Lapid’s follow-up: After all, every distinctive camera movement, every artificial gaze seems to be pregnant with meaning, signaling subtext. Yoav’s first poem, about a woman named Hagar, challenges auds to question whether using the name Hagar, the biblical mother of all Arabs, means Lapid is commenting on Israeli politics. But no: There are no hidden allusions, only the generically valid point that we’ve strangled our souls on the altar of Mammon.”

Updates, 6/19: Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club: “Policeman creates contrasts between families and surrogate families; patriarchy and maternity; truth and fiction; and sanctioned and unsanctioned aggression. Like its narrative, this gripping film rarely veers in the expected directions—and is never easy to pin down.”

And BOMB‘s posted Liza Béar interview with Lapid that took place after the NYFF screening in 2011 “during the height of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park.”

Updates, 3/21: “Lapid’s twirling 180-degree pans and shallow focus match Nira’s searching, conflicted gaze, which considers pop culture’s relationship to fascism—a word reserved for poetry circles—and the daily rituals that seal an unchecked nationalism,” writes Micah Gottlieb for the L. “As he decenters everything but the Hatikvah, Lapid’s provocations generate a profound imbalance that may never be restored—but his uncanny ability to observe those contradictions is itself poetic justice.”

“An off-putting physicality develops in the relationship between teacher and student,” writes Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker. Nira “can barely resist touching the boy. She gives him an unnecessary shower in a locked bathroom. She showers herself when he is in the room. Bodies and body parts have special significance for Lapid…. But does her obsession get too far out of hand? Answer: I am reviewing only the first 100 minutes of a 120-minute film.”

“The film’s denouement is at once shocking and organic because it echoes a well-paced but nasty children’s fable, or a piece of magic realism concocted by novelist Elena Ferrante, the Dardennes, or Chantal Akerman,” writes Diego Costa at Slant. “This may have been a more striking film, however, if the recited poetry were actually good, which may be a matter of faulty translation—or the untranslatable. What does seem clear, albeit nuanced, is The Kindergarten Teacher‘s portrait of a country where people begin their day already exhausted, human relations are severed, and poetry is borne out of the body, in a kind of inadvertent ejaculation, since nothing conspires toward the beautiful.”

Nicolas Rapold interviews Lapid for Film Comment.

Update, 3/24: “Lapid has loosened the exacting visual style he deployed in his debut feature, Policeman, but his politics still cut,” finds Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Update, 3/29: For Christopher Bourne at Twitch, “although by the conclusion Nira ultimately could be said to have gone mad, this film refuses to judge her harshly, and is much more condemning of her environment, which elevates banal practicality over the appreciation of true beauty.”

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