Monday, October 24, 2011

Festival du nouveau cinéma 2011: Hashoter

Hashoter/Policeman (2011, Nadav Lapid)

As I purchased a 6 ticket package for the FNC a couple of weeks ago (for the price of 5! What a deal!), one film among the six chosen that aroused special curiosity was Nadav Lapid’s Hashoter, or Policeman as the English translation goes. It is an Israeli film from a debutant feature-length filmmaker about a group of anti-terrorist policemen who operate in modern day Jerusalem. A propensity to enjoy cop films triggered interest to begin with, but much more about the film’s potential drew me in. Israeli cinema, while earning some respect in recent years for quality filmmaking, does not top a lot of lists of countries who produce many must-see movies. France, Germany, Korea, Great Britain, Japan are all countries, if one discounts the United States, that stir up immediate interest before Israel, and that’s just to name a few. Plus, a film about an anti-terrorist unit working in a country that currently, and what has seemed like forever, is dealing with the threat of terrorism, suddenly made me bubble with excitement.

A regular plot synopsis feels futile in the case of Lapid’s film. Reviews at Between the Seats virtually always offer readers a description of what happens in a movie’s first 20 minutes or so, just to let the curious movie watchers an indication of what they would be in for. However, Lapid’s bold attempt at describing the modern police force in Israel eschews typical narrative, thus rendering the regular summary difficult and even pointless. In a nutshell, Hashoter is divided into two distinct yet equally important halves which eventually cross paths in the film’s final moments. The first half relates to the aforementioned police force, more specifically a band of five tightly knit colleagues, all well built, exuding some machismo manliness, madly in love with their wives, their job and of course their country. The viewer spends the most time with Yaron (Yiftach Klein), who massages his pregnant wife thighs, visits a friend’s party, celebrates his mother’s birthday and deals a cancer-stricken colleague. Without warning, the narrative leaves this band and chooses to follow a small group of Israeli born young adult terrorists, born into riches but disgusted with the state of social and political inequity in their homeland. During this portion, the viewer spends the most time with Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a pretty woman, but draconian in her philosophy about justice and ready to make a difference by any means necessary. Needless to say, the terrorists will attempt something and guess who will be called in to stop them.

There is a moment in Hashoter when most of the movie came together for this reviewer. Up until then, the movie was enjoyable, interesting, well crafted and well acted, but it was not hitting a grand slam homerun by any stretch of the imagination. The moment occurs in the final minutes, when Yaaron and his team are receiving their mission briefing just prior to, hopefully, taking out the enemy who have gone about executing their own plans. Circumstances have led them to get a hold of photographs of the targets. Yaron observes the pictures of each individual one after the other, realizing, with a mixture surprise and irony (and disappointment? I don’t know) that none of the perpetrators are Arab. The moment does not last long, there are no comments about the fact, no subtle or not-so-subtle callbacks to that later on, no special musical cue or edit that highlights this moment. The moment in of itself suffices. It is a powerful one however, one that speaks volumes about virtually everything the movie has shown us from the first minute and probably speaks to the actual reality on the ground in Israel today. So people are accustomed to reading and watching the news about crazy, radical Islamists blowing stuff up and taking hostages. Well, this time the setup is different, but a job is a job is a job, and Yaron’s team has to take these punks out, whether they are Muslim Arabs or Israeli born Jews. Still, a little bit of reality has just struck very close to home for Yaron, who himself is to become a father any day now. By virtue of what has transpired up until now, the protagonist is incredibly proud to be an Israeli. He believes in his nation, loves it and enjoys serving and protecting it. Realizing that the enemy is not always who we think it to be is...weird, revelatory, unexpected, confusing, etc. The entire movie finally earns its spurs in those two minutes (it might even be briefer than that), hitting the audience, whether seeing Hashoter in Israel or in Montréal, Canada as was my case, with a cold sense of reality. All of our different backgrounds will undoubtedly create nuances in how we feel about something like this, but that harsh reality of the moment will affect every viewer at least in some way or another.

The lead up to that fateful climax is, as stated earlier, quite good, although not completely jaw-dropping. The most obvious question to ask is which half does one prefer? Each compliments the other, with each focussing primarily on one person more than the others in the separate camps, and with that single character having to live around various pleasing and frustrating realities. Shira is hard at work at composing a manifesto to be read during their strike (which always requires a re-draft), learns to use a firearm and is part of a delicate love triangle. She has feelings for tall, handsome Nathaniel, but another member of the group, a younger chap, is in love with her. The entire juxtaposition of what these Shira is fighting, that is, capitalism and its inequitable consequences, against where they come from, that is, a stinking rich family, makes this portion of the film both poignant and intriguing. This rejection of everything she knows and everything that has made her life comfortable, a rejection which leads her to a very dark place, psychologically speaking, arguably makes her the most fascinating character in the picture, not to mention that the actress Yaara Pelzig is powerful in the role. The natural beauty belies a mean streak inside. She plays the cold, calculating justice vigilante superbly, while still offering a few moments that remind the audience that she is a human. She grows more and more disagreeable as her story evolves, possibly because the pressure of the situation is getting to her, possibly because that is who she is underneath the pretty face. Regardless, she owns all of her scenes.

Yiftach Klein, the central figure in the first half, is strong in his own way. He has charm, both in a way a husband should when spending time with his wife and when hanging out with friends at the beach or at a party. The portion of the Hashoter which follows the anti-terrorist group is worthy mostly for its depiction of what the behavioural tendencies such a person and group of people would have in a specific culture. They are more than just men: they are manly men, who enjoy behaving like manly men at every possible opportunity. They wear sunglasses often, always slap each other really hard on the back just to say hello like manly men should, one of their pastimes is pick up wrestling, they like to hit on pretty girls, at least until they realize the girls are under age. It is a way of life not many experience, not one I personally want to experience, but deserving of being explored on screen for the sake of the movie. Seeing them deal with a friend and colleague who will more than likely die soon because of his brain tumour is another aspect that proved gripping.

Reviews which argue that a single scene made an entire film cause scepticism on my part. Hashoter comes close mind you, although despite that nugget of real gold elaborated on above, it feels as if each group would have benefited from their own film. By the time the switch in focus happens at the midway point, the viewer would have liked to stay with the policemen, and when the final confrontation begins, we want to learn more about the terrorists before their time is up. Despite some reservations, Nadav Lapid’s efforts are nonetheless praiseworthy for the mature storytelling and quality directing on display.

No comments: