By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 9, 2011 at 2:53AM
Everyone seems lost in Nadav Lapid's "Policeman" ("Ha-shoter"), an unsettling story of brawny Israeli anti-terrorist officers and the equally clueless activists they're eventually tasked with hunting down. While blatantly topical, this is not a political film of the moment, but rather a calculated meditation on purpose. Developed by first-time director Lapid at a Cannes Film Festival residency, the script for "Policeman" contains a persistently muted, disquieting tone that the director could expand upon in subsequent efforts. While somewhat problematically fragmented, "Policeman" is loaded with insight into the nuances of Israeli society.
Using a cerebral approach that calls to mind fellow Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, Lapid follows tough-minded officer Yaron (Yiftach Klein), an ultra-confident man of the law and husband to a very pregnant woman. Biking up a desolate hill with his fellow officers in the first scene, he sprints ahead of the group in extreme close-up, making his domineering nature immediately prominent. But Yaron's hardened exterior has been put to the test by mounting legal troubles he faces along with his colleagues in the wake of an offscreen showdown with Arab militants, which results in an innocent death.
The group makes a mutual decision to officially place the blame on the one member of their unit afflicted with cancer, who readily accepts the role. Viewed by Lapid camera in long, thoughtful takes and distended tracking shots to accentuate the fraternal groupthink of the unit, Yaron's life contains a hauntingly disaffected quality, as if he has become trapped by a need to retain his alpha male presence at all costs--and lost some of his humanity as a result.
Just when it looks like that bubble of self-confidence may burst, Lapid shifts to an entirely separate storyline involving bleeding heart Israeli activists planning a misguided terrorist act against local bureaucrats. Led by a dashing young romantic (Yaara Pelzig), the group talks excitedly about their need to strike out against a society held down by avaricious self-interests.
Lapid script brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the homefront in a manner that few other recent entries in Israeli cinema have: While Eytan Fox's "Bubble" studied pro-Palestinian Israeli youth activists in Tel Aviv, it placed them within a familiar comedic backdrop, positioning the subculture in a cheery genre ready-made for western consumption. "Policeman," which has an experimental formalism that calls to mind Carlos Reygadas, has no such easy access point. Its activists are continually alienated from their cause and no less conflicted about it than Yaron as he struggles with the nature of his duty.
The two stories inevitably converge with an act of violence that brings the country's classism into a gripping climax. However, Lapid cold stylistic approach lessens the possibility of becoming emotionally involved in the plights of his main characters, relegating them to thematic props. Yaron drops out the picture just when he starts to show the cracks in his robust personality.
Nevertheless, when he returns for the exceptional climax, he shows the first signs of doubt, and "The Policeman" adopts a progressive stance. "You are also oppressed," the young activist announces to the policeman before they eagerly dismantle a poorly executed hostage situation while mocking her accusation. Yaron says nothing, but his face speaks volumes about the possibility that some aspect of that vague proclamation has snuck into his mind and held tight. Stuck in a listless world for much of its running time, "Policeman" ends with the slightest hint of progress.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although the narrative style is too experimental for wide release, "Policeman" should still generate buzz on the festival circuit, particularly at Jewish and Israel-centric film festivals, where its unique take on controversial material is likely to get people talking, whether or not they like what they see.