Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Lesson in Tedium: The Kindergarten Teacher

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher.

Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher is an atypical Israeli film, reminding one more of the lugubrious films of the late filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) and Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist) than of the fine and realistic cinema (Walk on Water, Broken Wings, Yossi) one is used to seeing from that country. It’s a heavy-handed drama that purports to be more than it actually is, one that's sorely taxing to sit through.

The kindergarten teacher is one Nira (Sarit Larry), a longtime educator who as the film begins is telling her husband (Lior Raz) about a peculiar five-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman) whom she notices being picked up by his nanny each day. Eventually, her interest in the boy, who seems to be autistic and also composes unique poems, turns into an obsession, and one that consumes her to the degree that she risks all she holds dear in life.

The story of The Kindergarten Teacher has promise but Lapid’s direction is so deliberately jagged, and his narrative so determinedly choppy, that it’s hardly conducive to a gripping movie experience. (Lapid makes sure to either cut his scenes jarringly short or, conversely, go on for far too long.) It’s also a movie that holds little relation to life on Planet Earth as we know it. Why does no one notice that Nira is showing so much interest in Yoav? She has a teacher's aide working with her in a small group, after all. And why does the boy evince specific adult characteristics when interacting with Nira but not with anyone else? The low point, the one which tips the movie into sheer absurdity, occurs when Yoav calls Nira on the phone, while she is making love to her husband, to read her his latest opus. (Absurdly, she answers the phone during coitus.) It’s, no doubt, meant to be a significant scene but all I could is do is wonder how the kid got Nira’s phone number or even knew enough to find out her last name in order to call her? We’re not supposed to worry or wonder about minutiae like that but The Kindergarten Teacher practically begs a discerning viewer to constantly try to interpret it through the lens of real life.

Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher.
Of course if you buy into its central premise, that it’s the world’s (or in this case, Israel’s) poets who are the most authentic heroes of them all,  then you’ve swallowed the film’s Kool-Aid. (How is this different from a saccharine message movie like Dead Poet’s Society?) In case we didn’t get that point, Lapid makes sure that any cultural droppings sprinkled throughout the film – inane comedy TV shows, loud club music – are depicted as coarse and vulgar by comparison. So are Nira’s fellow would-be poets in a class she takes. Lapid makes sure that most of them don’t comprehend Nira’s poetic intent or rather Yoav’s since she filches his work for her ends. Yet, thief or not, this professionally irresponsible teacher – the movie is studiously neutral on her actions and even their consequences – is so much above the pedestrian hacks who surround her. Genius like hers (aka Yoav’s) is always misunderstood. Yeah, right! Lapid also compares the perilous existence of the poets to those of newspaper columnists, a ridiculous comparison since poetry, more often than not, has been on the cultural margins while, until recently, newspapers were at the cultural centre of things. Are Yoav’s poems good ones? Perhaps – Nira and the nanny both appropriate them for their own use – but you have to accept that Yoav would have come up with these gems in the first place, something I could never do.

The film also posits, through the utterances of Nira’s vapid poetry teacher (Gilad ben David), that Israel is a fascist society, run by a government that hates culture. The former is certainly wrong; a fascist regime – incidentally, a very loaded word in a movie made in a Jewish state – would not allow films like The Kindergarten Teacher to be made in the first place. Fascists hate arty-fartsy cultural products. As for the latter retort, well, maybe, you can’t really love culture if you foist dreadful movies like this on your cinema-going public. In this light, the actors do their utmost to sell their characters but they’ve got Lapid’s meretricious screenplay to surmount and I’m not sure the greatest thespians in the world could accomplish that. I was actually shocked that The Kindergarten Teacher was made under the impetus of Israel’s famed Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, as it’s so far removed from that school’s consistently excellent, humane and moving short films.

Mind you, if you’re going to have a varied and noticed national cinema – and Israeli movies are far more likely to be commercially released in North America than those of most other countries – you’ll likely expect to make space for exploitation movies, like the Tarantino-esque thriller Big Bad Wolves and also pretentious art house fare like The Kindergarten Teacher. I just hope not too many of the latter get made, as the damage to Israel’s cinematic reputation could be a lasting one.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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