The most prominent Israeli filmmakers in recent years have produced heavily politicized work (Amos Gitai) or focused on the impact of the country’s political situation on day to day social life (Eytan Fox). “Zero Motivation,” the debut feature writer-director Talya Lavie, stands out for resisting either of those categories even as it acknowledges the bigger picture. An offbeat comedy about several disgruntled female soldiers stationed at a remote human resources office in the middle of the desert, the movie engages with gender imbalance and satirizes the aimlessness of military bureaucracy while retaining a disarmingly personal quality. It’s a softly humorous and sad story about the frustrations of young women thrust into the military complex who air their grievances with snark. Its critical angle only emerges by implication.
The closest point of comparison with “Zero Tolerance” is Robert Altman’s “MASH,” which depicted the goofy antics of a Vietnam-era outpost even as the horrors of war lurked in the background and virtually every major character expressed a desire to escape. In “Zero Tolerance,” jittery 18-year-old Zohar (a steely-eyed Dana Ivgy) moans to her best friend (Nelly Tagar) about the prospects of getting transferred to Tel Aviv, where she can enjoy life in the big city. Despite her rebellious attitude, Zohar’s a pretty standard teenager, irking to lose her virginity and lead an independent life away from the travails of pencil-pushing. But the excitement at the camp seems to involve everyone but Zohar: In its first half, a newcomer commits suicide, and her close companion lands the transfer that Zohar passionately desires. In essence, she’s trapped in a limbo of paperwork, with her only respite coming from ’90s-era computer games. When a colleague seems to have been possessed by a demon, the absurdity of this random development epitomizes Zohar’s fervent need for some kind of action, and that others share her grief.
While Lavie doesn’t use any sophisticated filmmaking tricks, “Zero Motivation” has a subtle quality to its narrative, which unfolds through a series of interlocking short stories riddled with the characters’ angst. Lavie threads together the fragmented plot with a loose flow that echoes the malaise of her characters’ daily existence. Like “MASH,” it downplays major events in favor of conveying the unseemly environment that provides its leading ladies with their main source of antagonism. While the movie’s minor key qualities limit its sophistication, “Zero Motivation” isn’t devoid of ideas: The drab human resources office epitomizes the dead-end quality of military life. Nobody sees combat and, with one fleeting exception, the only weapons fired are stapler guns.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solely present by virtue of its absence, reflecting the distance these women have from the events keeping them there. “You realize we’re here to serve the system, right?” one woman is told when revealing her exasperation. Despite the darkly funny events that result from their scenario, it’s that open-ended question that gives “Zero Motivation” a pointedly tragic undertone in every scene.
Just as Eytan Fox’s “Yossi and Jagger” marked a significant moment in Israeli cinema for exploring the struggles of gay men in the country’s military, so too does “Zero Motivation” generate a radical dimension for its sympathetic focus on women in the same conditions. Lavie cleverly applies the ingredients of a workplace comedy — with gags ranging from an addiction to FreeCell and rampant paper shredding — even as darker elements like sexual frustration and misogyny remain in play. The mysterious score hints less at puzzle pieces yet to be revealed, but they’re symbolic more than anything else. On more than one occasion, Zohar expresses variations on the desire to “have a real life,” but never provides any indication that she knows what that means.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having won the narrative world cinema prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Zero Motivation” should continue to garner praise on the festival circuit — particularly at Jewish film festivals. Theatrical prospects are limited but a small distributor could generate solid returns in a handful theaters based on strong word of mouth.