NYFF ’11 Review: Fighters of the Nation: The Stylish Substance of “Policeman”

Policeman, the first feature film of Israeli director Nadav Lapid, is an exhilarating surprise at NYFF this year (the programming committee claims to have selected it before it earned a wave of hype at Locarno). Writer/director Lapid’s film wrestles with the Israeli class system through the dichotomized characters of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), the alpha male of a counter terrorist police group, and Shira (Yaara Pelzig), the poetic oracle of a group of young revolutionaries.In the opening scene, the counter terrorist unit stands on a hill after a competitive bike ride, surveying the view, telling each other, “This is the most beautiful country in the world.” Lapid likes to array his characters striking different attitudes in the middle distance, delineated against a stark backdrop, and here, the men are placed in a position of dominance, fanned out over the sun-bleached land.The men share an allegiance forged through years of military operations, but Yaron’s blaming Ariel, his best friend, in a court case over a civilian death involving the entire unit undercuts any “band of brothers” sentimentality. Lapid similarly bypasses the saccharine when showing acute tenderness between friends; Yaron often rests his hand on Ariel’s shoulder, in a calming gesture, as though soothing a horse. When Ariel, dying from cancer, bathes in the sea, Yaron violently washes his bald head with salt water, as though trying to dissolve his sickness.Traditional masculine roles—caretaker, defender, leader— rest easily on Yaron’s burly shoulders, but he performs his responsibilities with a detached brusqueness. He hunches over his pregnant wife’s thighs, massaging them with oil, and orchestrates his mother’s birthday celebrations with a sense of duty, not pleasure. In one of the film’s strangest and most magnetic scenes, Yaron dances to an Israeli pop song for his wife, who reclines on a sofa. He maintains a blank expression, as his ridiculous moves take on a virile significance, a coded display of force masquerading as casual silliness.Just when the details of Yaron’s life begin to form a nuanced portrait, Policeman abruptly shears in half, moving into the midst of a group of fevered young bohemians with an impressive collection of firearms. Introduced, like the police, spread out against the natural backdrop of Israel, they shoot a tree to pieces for target practice rather than exclaiming over its beauty.Taking a cue from Godard’s Le Gai Savoir, they spend their days composing a poetic manifesto addressing rampant economic injustices in their city. While the group shares facile similarities with political agitators in another NYFF Main Slate selection, The Student, these revolutionaries are ready to sacrifice their lives, not just their GPAs. Shira, a dewy blond and the ideological nexus of her group, caresses her compatriot with a loaded handgun and repeats, like a mantra, “It’s time for the poor to get rich and the rich to start dying.”Lapid holds his camera back with the cautious reserve of a documentarian, letting action play out at its own pace rather than jumping in with cuts and pans. Although he populates his film with intense, good-looking people, he uses close-ups sparingly, and eschews shot-reverse-shot almost entirely, instead filming only profiles, or allowing one face be obscured.Shira hosts her fellow radicals at a luxury apartment on loan from her parents, the glitzy location adding an edge of satire to their earnest deliberations on worker exploitation. They make plans for an act of revolt eventually revealed through sinuous camerawork in a cleverly paced and constructed wedding scene. Too many films about social injustice rely on a fuzzy, muddy, ostensibly naturalistic look, foregoing the construction of a visual message to match their political one; Lapid understands that visual style is as vital as content, arranging his shots with stately grace and inventive framing.Eventually the action is confined to a cement walled storeroom, where the terrorists cycle through various configurations of aggression and submission. The restricted mise-en-scene motivates Lapid to open up the action through multiple changes in camera level and composition, moving his actors (appropriately dressed in black and white) like pieces on a chessboard.When characters from disparate walks of life come together through a crisis, the result can be achingly trite, but in Policeman the eventual connection of Yaron and Shira is  sudden and streamlined, illuminating the drama rather than undercutting it. Yaron, always alert to Arab aggression (he says of one Palestinian pulling into a tight parking space, “if he scratches my car, he’s dead”), is horrified when he realizes his enemy is a beautiful Jewish girl, just like the women he spends his life showing off to and caring for.Yaron and Shira’s essential similarity forms the through-line to Policeman’s disconnected halves; both are stoic and dedicated to their respective social groups to the point of mania, and they bear full responsibility for their friends. But they’re more certain and strong than their respective compatriots, who are isolated in smug idealism. Shira and Yaron have such eloquent and peculiarly analogous faces that their close-ups, dealt with powerful infrequency, say more about the inequality of their society than manifestos and speechifying ever could.Anna Bak-Kvapil is a film critic, filmmaker and actor. She contributes to the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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