Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 09, 2015 6:35 pm 
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Dangerous child

The child is dangerous for the kindergarten teacher in Nadav Lapid's second feature. She loses all restraint in the face of five-year-old Yoav Pollak's ability to compose strange gnomic "poems." She becomes envious and adoring and possessive toward the boy and his productions (drawn from the director's own childhood compositions). Lapid's first film, Policeman (NYFF 2011), was assured and powerfully staged but its separate parts didn't cohere. No such problem here, with all the focus on Sarit Larry as Nira, the teacher, and Avi Snaidman as the boy. People and events are so vivid and so over-the-top that it's hard to say if he means them to be taken literally. But he goes for a hyper-real effect from the start, shooting faces of Nira's schoolchildren in extreme closeup, and close to her. Set in Tel Aviv and the resort of Eilat to which she takes the boy when she kidnaps him, the images are bright and sunlit.

It turns out Yoav's father is a powerful, important and busy man, and the boy is under the care of a nanny, Miri, who is also an actress. For this role Lapid has enlisted the talented Ethiopian-Jewish Israeli singer Ester Rada. Miri performs Yoav's poems for auditions, claiming them as her own. Meanwhile Nira is in a poetry class, and starts doing the same thing, turning Yoav's poems in as her compositions -- getting generally favorable responses.

You can tell when Yoav is about to enunciate one of his compositions. He will begin pacing back and forth. Nira runs with notebook in hand to copy them down. Once she gets a longer poem from him over the phone. From time to time she takes the boy aside and once at the beach she gives him a lesson on Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic Jews. He always seems preternaturally calm and bright (Avi Shnaidman excellent in the role, natural and understated). Along the way there are scenes with a writer uncle of Yoav; with Nira's husband, an engineer with a good salary (solid and macho like the super cop in Policeman); at her writing class; and a scene of Miri emerging from the water and singing one of Yoav's poems (quite beautifully).

Things reach the tipping point when Nira takes Yoav to an evening adult poetry performance attended by her poetry teacher and gives away her previous deception by having Yoav perform. Yoav's father has already expressed his complete lack of interest in the boy's presumed special talent -- part of the theme all along that this is an age when poetry is not appreciated. Nira seems to want Yoav treated as a genius and a national treasure; his dad wants him to grow up as a normal boy. Her unprompted use of the boy at the poetry slam leads to severe consequences and her most erratic behavior. Lapid pushes his plot into thriller territory.

The power of Lapid's film and its ability to disturb is that it's never quite clear if poetry is a good thing (even assuming the boy's utterances are "poetry," harder still to tell relying on English subtitles) or if it is something dangerous, since it seems to be driving Nira mad. Is the film an assertion of the importance of poetry and of the arts generally -- within the context of a war- and military-obsessed nation focused on technology and machismo -- or is it presenting such things as dangerous and disruptive? One has the impression that Lapid works impressionistically, that he's an instinctive writer and not a rational one. Anyway, he has narrowed down his scope here from Policeman but produced something more troubling. Jay Weissberg in Variety calls this new film "more artificial than the helmer's debut" (certainly true) and "a cool-headed denunciation of crass contempo life," and indeed its absurd, grotesque dancing, loud disco-style music, and jingoistic chants in kindergarten surely must be taken as ironic. But if this is a defense of poetry, why does it feel so harsh and insensitive? This film is vivid but also crude. Its success seems dubious; it makes one wonder about Policeman. Nonetheless there's no doubt it's powerful, vivid work.

The Kindergarten Teacher, 119 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2014; 8 or so festival showings since. Theatrical release in France received universal acclaim (AlloCiné press rating 4.0). Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (Lincoln Center and MoMA), March 2015.

Screening at New Directors/New Films with: Why? -- Nadav Lapid, Israel, 2015, DCP, 5 mins. French and Hebrew with English subtitles. A filmmaker is asked by Cahiers du Cinéma to choose the image that made him believe in cinema. North American Premiere. He depicts how he was deeply impressed by Pasolini while doing military service. US release 2015 (Kino Lorber): 31 July Film Society of Lincoln Center; and 6 Nov. 2015 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CA.

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