Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Israel’s Human Resources Manager

In addition to mundane benefits administration and payroll management, HR managers do a bit of PR flackery in Israel. They also have to worry about terrorism. When an immigrant worker at a struggling bread factory is murdered during a Palestinian attack, but goes unmissed for days, it creates a media scandal that must be dealt with by the title character of Eran Riklis’s The Human Resources Manager (trailer here), the winner of Israeli Academy Award for best picture, which opens this Friday in New York.

She is the only character in the film with a proper name. Yulia worked the graveyard shift on the lowly cleaning crew. She had a son back in Romania, but seemed to like living in Israel, at least according to secondhand reports. The HR Manager would not know. He does not even remember her. In all fairness, he has had plenty to distract him. In fact, the HR Manager clearly hates working in HR. However, he accepted the Jerusalem-based position in hopes of mending fences with his estranged wife and their sensitive daughter.

During his investigation, the protagonist learns the messy but oh-so human reason why Yulia’s absence went unnoticed for so long. Naturally, he is reluctant to air their laundry in public. Unfortunately, the journalist pursuing the story has no interest in truth. He simply sees an opportunity to embarrass a supposedly exploitative corporation. (Yes, some things are universal, regardless of national boundaries.) In order to put the controversy to rest, the HR Manager must escort Yulia’s body back to her family in Romania. Yet, even that task turns out to be more complicated than he anticipates.

Though HR eventually settles into the road movie format, it is far deeper and sadder than typical on-the-road fare. More than anything, it is the quietly compelling work of Mark Ivanir as the HR Manager that distinguishes the film from the pack. He conveys a complex lifetime of experience just in the way his character carries himself. Clearly missing the action of an earlier life, but profoundly world-weary and haunted, he is an extraordinary everyman.

Unlike Riklis’ previous film The Lemon Tree, HR is not an explicitly political movie. Yet, for American audiences, the everyday reality of terrorism will loom over the film. The value Israelis place on human life, even anonymous immigrants like Yulia is equally evident. Truly, a film HR could never be produced within any of Israel’s neighbors.

As Israel’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration, HR is a considerably worthier candidate than the recent Oscar winner, In a Better World, but it was not even shortlisted. Academy voters in this category were simply out to lunch this year. HR is a film of subtle emotional payoffs, honestly earned, primarily through Ivanir’s remarkably strong and dignified lead performance. A very good film, HR opens this Friday (3/4) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.