One of the highlights of last month’s Cannes Film Festival was Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, an allegory about modern Israel in which a schoolteacher becomes convinced that her 5-year-old pupil is a genius—the poet equivalent of Mozart, and perhaps even a modern prophet, albeit one who will go unrecognized in an era that would rather chase a quick buck than cultivate high art. The teacher’s nurturing side soon gives way to a darker protective impulse, in a film that allows for an unusual complexity and fluidity of motivation.
A sort of unofficial sequel, The Kindergarten Teacher casts a new light on Lapid’s earlier Policeman, which is belatedly receiving its stateside release. Here is another film that is deeply conflicted about the status quo in Israel, also centered—as a programmer noted before the new film’s Cannes premiere—on an authority figure charged with safeguarding the nation’s future.
The movie initially appears to be a character study of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), a counterterrorism officer who’s about to become a father. Right from the start, Yaron is presented in terms of his contradictions. He’s capable of being nurturing—Lapid films him lovingly applying lotion to his pregnant wife’s body—yet he’s also a frightening, macho enforcer who flirts with other women. (He invites a 15-year-old waitress to examine his gun.) Yaron warns his wife not to tell anyone she’s about to pop—it’s bad luck, he says—then relays that information to virtually everyone he meets. He’s also currently facing adjudication for a counterterrorism operation in which civilians were killed. His squad plans to pin the blame on a cancer-stricken colleague, who can’t be tried while he’s being treated.
Around the midpoint, Policeman shifts focus to a group of Israeli radicals who fume about the income gap between the rich and the poor, which they claim is the largest in any Western nation. They plan to hold a billionaire family hostage at a wedding. One of them, Oded (Michael Moshonov), is smitten with the fanatical Shira (Yaara Pelzig); his aging-revolutionary father questions whether he’s acting out of belief or infatuation. As Policeman pretzels its way around—it’s clear fairly early that Yaron and the terrorist cell will eventually meet—Lapid highlights several provocative parallels. Almost by definition, nationalism exists at the intersection of love and violence, a duality that runs throughout the film. Policeman creates contrasts between families and surrogate families; patriarchy and maternity; truth and fiction; and sanctioned and unsanctioned aggression. Like its narrative, this gripping film rarely veers in the expected directions—and is never easy to pin down.