Teaching, that most noble of professions, gets a twisted makeover in writer-director Nadav Lapid’s latest slice of contemporary Israeli life. Dedicated arthouse fans will recall “Policeman,” Lapid’s directorial debut from a few years back, which saw him weigh the dangers of ideological action on the scales of justice via the machismo of Israeli Defense Ministry’s Anti-Terrorism unit. Now, for his sophomore effort, he chooses to present his version of contemporary society through the POV of a wholly different profession (dangerous ideologies and scales in tow.) “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a quiet, melancholic piece of work. Methodical in the way it tiptoes towards its disturbing climax, but also in its constant reminder that something’s off. If “Policeman” is more excavation than slice, then “The Kindergarten Teacher” is merely a scratch. It probes into some fascinating territories and leaves plenty of room for intellectual discussions, but it’s ultimately founded upon a forgettable cinematic experience. That is to say, to think about it in hindsight is more compelling than to sit through the actual thing.
As far as opening sequences go, I’m hard-pressed to recall one as cinematically uninviting as the one Lapid chooses here. A man (Lior Raz) watches television in his living room, feet up in the air (his foot is the first thing we see), calling for his wife Nira (Sarit Larry) to join him. As he sits up and turns around to see where she is, he physically hits the camera more than once. Flicking the fourth wall this way is instantly discomforting purely based on how unnatural and clearly staged the action is. The man in question is the kindergarten teacher’s husband, whose disregard for art is telegraphed in the way he anticipates his wife’s poetry, and, in the way he callously whacks Lapid’s camera. As dreary and unappealing as this opening sequence is, it’s not entirely without purpose. In a few minutes we find out that Nira is a sensitive soul, her husband is a schlub, and neither of them appear content in their lives. But the sanctimonious tone doesn’t bode well.
Nira tells her husband about a young boy in her kindergarten, Yoav Pollak (Avi Shnaidman), and recites his poem. She starts to pay special attention to Yoav because of his seemingly prodigious poetic talent, one that he exhibits at random moments while pacing back forth in a semi-creepy, trance-like state. The more poetry Yoav recites, the more Nira becomes convinced that he’s a wunderkind, a young “poet in an era that hates poets.” She says these words to his father, Amnon (Yehezkel Lazarov), a successful restaurateur who doesn’t have the time, patience, or the will to encourage his son’s artistic inclinations. Even the boy’s uncle, Aharon (Dan Toren), the man who introduced Yoav to poetry in the first place, has lost all will to help, living out his days in a vacuum and waiting for life to finish his story. Surrounded by this materialistic and apathetic environment both at work and at home, Nira decides to take matters into her own hands with Yoav.
Lapid takes a calculated approach to “The Kindergarten Teacher,” but his fluid camera movements can’t pan over his self-conscious writing. The dialogue is often awkward, and mostly delivered in a detached, monotonous way that only serves to enhance the awkwardness. This could’ve ended up a minor flaw, if his main actor wasn’t hogging the lion’s share of the blame. Sarit Larry portrays Nira as a hollow vessel, a mere outline of a person who is susceptible to poetic beauty but hasn’t a trace of it herself. Her interactions with other characters — be it through random quasi-meta visions of Yoav’s nanny Miri (Ester Rada), her escalating obsession with Yoav, or discussing her own kids with her blue-collar husband — lose momentum in record timing because Larry just looks bored. Constantly. By the time she’s ratting out Miri for plagiarizing Yoav’s poetry after she herself did the same thing in her poetry class, curiosity’s already killed a clutter of cats.
This lifeless execution is not the canvas that Shai Goldman’s accomplished and delicate cinematography deserves. Along with this technical achievement, cinephiles will no doubt appreciate Lapid’s deliberate camera, ever meticulous to pan across rooms in lieu of brisk cuts in order to allow the audience to truly absorb the sense of Nira’s conventional imprisonment, confined within the pale walls of a diluted metropolitan way-of-life. It’s just too bad that the film ends up incarcerating the audience with its addled pacing and ostentatious overtones.
The film takes a sharp turn for its final act, the only moment for which the descriptor “act” feels appropriate, and leaves the audience to dive into debates concerning a teacher’s obligations to her students, when must nurture conquer nature if true talent is recognized, and just how deeply disturbed this woman really is. Lapid’s on-the-nose insertion of Israeli legends and history into conversations and children’s activities also invites some rather intriguing parallels to Nira’s thought process with Yoav. Alas, with a surface this tarnished, there’s little that compels me to look beneath. Much like the drab sequence that opens the film, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is too lackadaisical in its execution to be as profound as it thinks it is. [C-]