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 self-defined purpose in the midst of societal confusion.
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. (His follow-up, "The Kindergarten Teacher," recently screened to acclaim in the latest Cannes lineup.) Despite its fragmented structure, "Policeman" is loaded with coherent insight into the nuances of contemporary 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, foregrounding his domineering nature. But Yaron's confidence has already been tested by mounting legal troubles he faces along with his colleagues in the wake of an off-screen showdown with Arab militants, which results in an innocent death.
The group makes a joint decision to officially place the blame on the one member of their unit afflicted with cancer, who readily accepts the role. Viewed by Lapid's camera in long takes and distended tracking shots to accentuate the unit's fraternal groupthink mentality, 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 could burst, Lapid shifts to a 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's script explores the personal dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner that few other recent entries in Israeli cinema have even tried: While Eytan Fox's "Bubble" featured 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," with its experimental pace and atmosphere, doesn't make things easy on its audience. It forges an argument by implication and steeped in universal confusion: Alienated from their cause, the activists are just as conflicted as Yaron as he struggles with the nature of his duty.
The two stories inevitably converge with an act of violence that unfolds as a gripping climax. Though Yaron drops out the picture just when he starts to show the cracks in his robust personality, when he returns for the exceptional finale, he shows the first signs of doubt. It's here that "Policeman" adopts a progressive stance.
"You are also oppressed," the young activist announces to the cop 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 burrowed 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.
A version of this review ran during the 2011 Locarno Film Festival. Corinth Films opens "Policeman" in New York this Friday.