Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 5:37 am 
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Sex and lies and military careers in Israel

The title itself signals an intent to be claustrophobic. Viewing this tense, thought-provoking little film reminded me that the best scene in Joseph Cedar's somewhat celebrated academic tragicomedy Footnote (NYFF 2022) about a ruthless competition among Israeli Talmudic scholars, is also of men shut tightly up in a tiny closed room. Do Israelis feel peculiarly themselves now in claustrophobic situations, huits clos, secret private courtrooms where they are tried and found wanting but hide the secret from each other? All action, shot quickly after extensive rehearsals on a limited budget, occurs in this small room or inside a bus. This film is as economical as it is confined. Only a few brief black and white interludes of the main character alone fiddling about alone seem dispensable. It gives you plenty to think about that reflects on Israel's moral isolation.

The focus is on a young woman who is about to get out of the army and plans on entering law school. She has worked and now still works as an IDF military police investigator. She has also been having a sexual affair, we soon learn, also in Room 514, with a male colleague, who is himself about to marry and, of course, is hiding this affair from his fiance. There are two other reasonably attractive young men and an attractive older man who interact one-on-one with the young woman, all seen up close in the effective jittery handheld camera of Edan Sasson. One of the men is a gung-ho young unit commander accused of brutal treatment of a Palestinian Arab pater familias in front of his children in the occupied territories. The other is the chief witness of this alleged misconduct. The older man is the general in charge of the unit who is outraged at this investigation, which has potentially dire consequences for the accused, and perhaps the army.

This action is very like a play, except that the vivid camerawork creates effects you can't get on stage. As any Arab viewer will note, Arabs are barely more than an abstraction in this film. We don't ever see any. But there's the point of the striking airless imagery: this is about what goes on inside these young Israeli's heads, where Arabs are The Other, which may have various implications, all of them detached from reality. Room 514 consequently becomes a little bit abstract at times, more theoretical than real. But this is a weakness you may think of later that's pushed away while the movie unreels by how intense the tightly filmed up-front action is. The way this is shot there are long takes and the actors perform splendidly under close and prolonged scrutiny: this is, however minimal, tour-de-force stuff.

Every encounter between the young woman and the men is partly sexual. Thus it makes sense that the opening sequence is a real-time no-nonsense fuck, in Room 514, quick enough, and only partially undressed. The girl is Anna (Asia Naifeld, who looks a bit like Kate Winslet), the guy, Erez (Ohad Hall), who's her immediate superior. After this long-feeling sequence, as they get dressed, it's clear this has gone on a while. He's not sure about his impending marriage, but she strongly, with a devil-may-care air, urges him to go ahead with it ("If it doesn't work, just change it"). They also discuss the case that she wants to pursue of a Palestinian complaint against an officer they accuse of needless brutality. He urges her not to, saying it's political and might backfire (it does). There are glimpses after sex that show Erez and Anna have a special rapport. They are easy with one another. Erez tells Anna she's the only person who can make him laugh. The Erez-Anna relationship in the face of Erez's coming marriage is a metaphor for another aspect of Israeli life, the way it's outwardly free-thinking and hedonistic and inwardly rigid and conventional. Thus Alissa Simon in her Variety review can reasonably describe this film as "repping a microcosm of Israeli society," though that's obviously a bit of a simplification.

For her case, which she sees as destined to be the legacy of her military service, Anna has to get an inside Israeli military witness, and persuades Sgt. Nimrod (Guy Kapulnik), whom we now see in more tight camerawork, in Room 514. Bar-Ziv capitalizes on the three young men's erect military sameness by shooting toward Anna as scenes begin so we don't totally know which of them she's talking to. Nimrod has big, slightly pretty features. He's intense and sensitive. Later he will follow her on the bus she takes home each day to tell her his decision to testify against his commanding officer has robbed him of all friends in the barracks. Everyone calls him a traitor and a snitch now. Next Anna meets up with her defendant, arrogant true believer patriot Davidi (Udi Persi). Anna takes his weapon and disarms it before their first encounter. And later she sees him with Nimrod, but Davidi asks her if she can't turn off the video camera, to at least remove Nimrod from the room.

Everything out of Davidi's arrogant, self-confident and furiously angry mouth expresses the paranoia and self-justification of Israel's position in the world. In his view anything he has done is justified so long as Israelis can go home and find their families still alive. That is his job, and he's been doing it. He is proud of his unit's record. How dare Anna support Palestinians? By his own lights Davidi is a decent man and it's clear than in some sense he is. But the film's point is that even in this tiny room other moral universes cannot be kept from entering.

Making virtue of the necessity Bar-Ziv has created, he has Anna move physically close to both Nimrod and Davidi, whose plights she seems to sympathize with equally even though she considers herself powerless to change anything. In her final scene with him she talks Davidi into signing a confession that the accusations are true promising this will gain him more lenient treatment by the court. He nonetheless crumbles, his cocky facade broken. He feels his life is over. The consequences of this step are indeed dire and Anna is in trouble and the final confrontation is between her and the general who commands the whole brigade, who is furious about this case and instead of sending a representative, comes in person and confronts Anna as intimately as the three young men have done and with at least nearly as much sexual tension in the close air of Room 514.

Room 514/Heder 514, 91 mins., is Sharon Bar-Ziv's first feature, and debuted at Rotterdam Jan. 2012, showing at a number of other international festivals. It won Best New Narrative Director - Special Jury Mention at Tribeca 2012. Limited French release began 9 Oct. 2013. Screened for this review at MK2 Beaubeaurg, Paris, 25 Oct. 2013.

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