Discovering the Israeli filmmaker whose Synonyms won the Golden Bear at Berlinale

Baradwaj Rangan

Feb 28, 2019 10:22:17 IST

Nadav Lapid announced himself on the world stage with Policeman (2011). This was his first feature, and the plot suggests a genre piece. Yaron (Yiftach Klein) is part of an anti-terrorism commando unit. There’s a cocky macho-ness about him. His wife is about to deliver their first child, but when he sees a pretty waitress, he puts his gun on the table and tells her: “Touch it.” But he doesn’t stray. He is, in fact, remarkably focused — a flawed but inherently “good” man. And when we hear that an operation by his team left some civilians wounded and dead, it appears that the film will follow one of the templates we are used to. Maybe Yaron will be disgraced, and subsequently redeem himself in the eyes of the family members of the dead. Or maybe it’s more psychological, about how Yaron spirals out of control.

But Policeman is more interested in the formal aspects. For the first forty-odd minutes, the narrative centres on Yaron: his colleagues, his wife, his mother. Then, we shift abruptly to a bunch of young (and privileged) Jewish radicals -- and it’s a shock. Films usually work through cross-cutting. If there are two stories to be told -- (1) the one about Yaron, and (2) the one about revolutionaries who take hostages and need to be tackled by Yaron’s team -- then, typically, the radicals would be introduced early on, so we see their plans and plotting in parallel with the developments around Yaron. And the last stretch of the film (say, the last third or so) would be where these two narratives collide, with Yaron and his colleagues facing off against these youngsters.

But the face-off, when it happens, lasts just a few seconds. And more interestingly, once we shift to the narrative about these revolutionaries, we don’t see Yaron and his colleagues for about forty-five minutes. That’s the structure of Policeman: about forty minutes of Yaron’s story (where we don’t see the revolutionaries at all), about forty-five minutes of the revolutionaries’ story (where we don’t see Yaron at all), and only the final twenty-odd minutes begin to cross-cut between these two story threads, showing us how Yaron and team prepare to defuse the tense situation created by the revolutionaries. Lapid (who also wrote the film) destroys the screenwriting trope of the “character arc”, where we gradually bond with the characters on screen and see them go (in terms of personal growth) from Point A to Point B. By the end, Yaron is who he was at the film’s beginning. The revolutionaries haven’t changed either.

Policeman, then, is a subversion of the traditional hero-versus-villain(s) tale, where there is no “arc”, merely the prospect of good confronting evil. But as we saw earlier, is Yaron really “good”? And are the radicals “evil”? All they seek is to address the economic imbalance in Israel. In the opening scene, Yaron and his friends declare, “This is the most beautiful country in the world.” But the revolutionaries say, “Israel is the Western state with the biggest gap between rich and poor.” In a Film Comment interview, Lapid called Policeman “a pessimistic film about social immobility and incapacity to change reality” -- which makes sense, given the lack of traditional character arcs. Yaron doesn’t change. The revolutionaries don’t change. The country, apparently, doesn’t change either. After all, the film isn’t a Jews-versus-Arabs showdown. It’s Jews-versus-Jews.

Lapid’s next feature, The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), is similarly allegorical. It contains similar commentaries about Israel: “Nowadays an army career is for morons or poor people,” says a father whose son is going to become an officer. The genre mechanics of the story -- about a teacher who is convinced a five-year-old boy, named Yoav, is a prodigy, a genius-poet – are similarly subverted. (The film plays like a stalker thriller. Imagine Misery, but where the woman is more well-intentioned.) According to the teacher, Nira, “Mozart was nurtured by kings who stuffed him with candies, and Yoav has no one. He’s a poet in an era that hates poets.” Lapid invokes the Israeli poet Meir Wieseltier (I’m paraphrasing the poem): Tonight we read poems, but the world does not read poems tonight. Neither on other nights. Never again will the world read even the most beautiful poem. Even if we plead with it, it will not agree.

So when Nira kidnaps Yoav, it’s almost an act of terrorism. Like the young radicals in Policeman, she’s saying: “I am going to do something to address the imbalance in Israel.” The imbalance is between a world of words and images and beauty, versus “a government that doesn’t care, and hates culture.” Yoav’s father, a super-successful restaurateur (whose brother is a man of words) tells Nira: “I love my son. And I want him to have a normal life. You saw his uncle, a 50-year-old correcting the spelling of 25-year-old illiterate kids promoted as journalists because no one wants to write for a paper, and who get 300 shekels an article at best. I can’t stand bitter people, losers, leeches, whiners, blind people who can’t see where the world is headed. Or can see it and shut their eyes.”

In the Golden Bear-winning Synonyms, Lapid pushes this dichotomy even further. What is the most radical thing an Israeli can do to express his disgust with his homeland? Yoav (that name again) moves to France and renounces Israel. He declares he won’t speak Hebrew anymore. But here’s the thing. His clothes are stolen while he is in the bath, and after a futile search, he passes out in the bathtub. The next morning, he’s found by wealthy Parisian neighbours. Emile and Caroline revive him (bring him back to life, in a manner of speaking), feed him, clothe him. Yoav is “reborn” in Paris, which is very much part of his agenda. But when Emile was carrying Yoav to his flat, he noticed that Yoav was circumcised. Even with nothing on, the Jewish identity clings to this Israeli. Will merely speaking in French make him, well, French?

Synonyms is overlong and repetitive and sometimes willfully obscure – but every frame is charged with a break-all-rules aesthetic. It’s thrilling. It’s an adrenaline shot to the heart. The title comes from Yoav’s attempts to become proficient in the new language. He buys a French dictionary and keeps repeating words aloud. He tells Emile that Israel is “repugnant... fetid… obscene… ignorant… vulgar…” Emile replies, “No country is all of that at once.” And by the end, Yoav discovers that Emile is right, that there isn’t much difference between France and Israel. Or as Lapid might say, France is just a synonym for Israel. I still don’t know if I like the film. That is, I don’t know if I felt it in my heart. But like Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, I felt it in my gut. This is one of the most thrilling filmmaking careers in years, and I can’t wait to see what Nadav Lapid does next.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 11:38:49 IST