Tuesday, May 01, 2012

SFIFF ’12: Policeman

As if “Palestinian” terrorism were not enough to worry about, Israel also must contend with old fashioned violent leftist extremism.  Fortunately, the anti-terror cops are confident they can handle any threat in Nadav Lapid’s anti-procedural Policeman (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Yaron is your basic red-blooded Israeli man with a very pregnant wife.  He is the leader of his squad not necessarily by rank, but by force of personality.  Regrettably, a rather messy mission has created lingering legal problems for his unit.  However, Yaron should be able to fix it, if he can convince a colleague with a convenient but all too real brain tumor to take the heat for them.

About halfway through the film, Lapid switches gears, introducing viewers to the next crisis the SWAT cops will face.  The charismatic Shira and the manipulative Natanel lead an extreme leftwing terror cell planning to crash a billionaire’s wedding.  Their manifesto states: “it is time for the poor to get rich and the rich to start dying,” which ultimately would not leave anyone left alive.  At least total equality would be achieved.  The jig is nearly up when the father of Shira’s newest dupe discovers their plan.  Yet, rather than save his son by informing, the old school radical invites himself along to serve as his protector.  Before long, Yaron and his comrades reappear with an obvious job to do.

Policeman is an unusually detached film, highly charged politically, yet scrupulously avoiding the central issue of Israeli life.  In fact, Natanel vetoes every reference to the so-called “Palestinian” issue in Shira’s proclamation, lest it muddy the waters.  What emerges is a portrait of extremes.  On one hand, we see the hyper-masculinity of Yaron and his colleagues.  Lapid repeatedly shows viewers the back-slapping and chest-bumping rituals they go through every time they greet each other.  On the flip side, Shira and her co-conspirators are an emotionless lot, who are all more than willing to kill and die as part of the violent—all except Natanel that is.  He seems to prefer someone else stand in the line of fire.

Lapid’s clinical tone is not that far removed from Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, but it is even less judgmental.  Whereas many people will be horrified the actions of Shira and company during the final act, it is quite possible some immature viewers might be stirred up by it all.  Granted, that ambiguity is largely the point, but it leaves the film in a precariously half-pregnant state.

Whether it was her intention or not, Yaara Pelzig’s performance as Shira is absolutely terrifying.  Like a cobra, she expresses the hypnotic power extremists hold over their followers.  Frankly, the lack of a correspondingly compelling character among the police, good or bad, somewhat unbalances the film.

Lapid’s distinctly bifurcated narrative structure leads to a conspicuous stop-and-start-over effect that is arguably not in the film’s best interests.  Still, it quickly builds up more steam in the second part than first segment ever had.  Indeed, Policeman lays claim to one of the more intense and disturbing hostage stand-offs dramatized on film in recent years.  Wildly uneven but powerful down the stretch, Policeman should intrigue and scare viewers.  It screens tomorrow (5/2) and Thursday (5/3) as part of the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.