At the heart of Eran Riklis’ last three films — “The Syrian Bride” (2004), “Lemon Tree” (2008) and “The Human Rights Manager” (2010), which opens here on March 4 — are protagonists who have been so crushed by daily routine and pressure that they can only be brought back to real life by being shaken and stirred by circumstance.
Crushing routine is definitely not a problem for Riklis. Being a filmmaker presents such a vast and ever-changing array of challenges that it would be almost impossible to fall into the stunned trance state that affects some of his characters. And it is clear from these three films that Eran Riklis is not merely going through the motions but is intensely and intimately involved in the filmmaking process itself and the fate of his fictional characters.
This latter concern becomes immediately apparent when he talks about the process of creating the title character of the new film with actor Mark Ivanir. The human resources manager himself is the character who is stuck; he is an exhausted, cheerless and lost soul, separated from his wife, a disappointment to his daughter, and barely hanging on in his job at a large Jerusalem bakery.
“When I met Mark we were both in a place in our lives where we could identify with this man,” Riklis said last week, speaking from his Tel Aviv home by telephone. “I think most men can. I think we tend to ignore a lot of things about our personal lives and our surroundings just to get through the day.
“OK, ‘I’m a sensitive guy,’” he said with a laugh. “No, I really try to be sensitive to the people closest to me, but also to the foreign workers, to the Palestinians, to the poor, but without being condescending. But what really happens is that with a lot of issues, you tend to be totally insensitive because you’re rushing around trying to get your film off the ground.”
The HRM’s problems are more mundane and yet more mysterious. When screenwriter Noah Stollman and Riklis turned A.B. Yehoshua’s novel, “A Woman in Jerusalem” into a film, they chose to leave much of the character’s past unexplained. And it stays that way, much to the film’s benefit.
“I think it’s like when you do casting,” he said. “I always look for actors with some kind of secret. The viewer is always attracted by some kind of secrecy. You stretch your abilities — how far can you go without supplying the obvious answer. Even on set you ask, ‘Am I being too vague?’ There’s a lot of pressure. Am I being clear emotionally? I’m not concerned about plot details being clear.”
But the film’s primary plot elements are, in fact, crystal clear and almost too familiar. When a former employee of the bakery is killed in a suicide bombing, she goes unidentified for several days. Were it not for an old pay stub from the company, she would probably have remained nameless, but a local tabloid reporter finds her name and identity — Yulia, a Romanian worker alone in Jerusalem — and uses the story to embarrass the firm. In an attempt to salvage its image, the firm’s owner (Gila Almagor) has the HRM escort the body out of the country so that it can be buried in Yulia’s small hometown. And the obnoxious newspaperman, referred to in the film only as The Weasel (Guri Alfi), tags along.
The “odd couple on the road” set-up has all the hallmarks of an American buddy film at its smarmiest, which was something Riklis most definitely didn’t want. But the set-up helped him decide just how much of his protagonist’s secrets to reveal.
“I really tried to avoid the obvious by-the-numbers plot: your hero has something dark in the past and it has to come out for him to resolve his problems,” he said. “You have to break the mold and yet respect it. My whole process of work with Mark was like that. You reveal things yet hide them. Something broke between this man’s mind and his heart. The whole journey is between those two parts of the body. But to make that connection he has to embark on a physical and emotional journey.”
As in Yehoshua’s novel, the only character who actually is named is the dead woman. Everyone else is designated by a job or role title. It’s a well-chosen irony that underlines the trap from which the human rights manager must extricate himself. The film’s opening image, row after row of identical loaves of bread rolling down a ramp to bake, tells you from the outset that this is a world of interchangeable parts, a world where people are reduced to their jobs.
“We looked for different ways to open the film, but we couldn’t find anything that I was happy with,” Riklis recalled. “Finally, even though it was the most obvious choice, we went with that one. Hey, it’s probably the way the factory works, maybe the country, maybe even the whole world. And all of a sudden you have this one woman who has a name … and she deserves it.”
Riklis is a great admirer of Yehoshua’s novels and apparently the feeling is mutual. At any rate, the author was pleased with how this particular film turned out.
“I managed to respect and suspect everything that was beautiful in the book,” the director said. “You’re creating a new world when you’re filming. You have to do what will serve the on-screen story and the emotions of the audience.”
The film works in both those respects admirably, and Yehoshua told Riklis that he was delighted with the end product.
“He said to me, ‘I love it, it’s your story, but it’s mine, too,’” Riklis said with understandable pride.
Riklis and Stollman did make one significant change from the book; in Yehoshua’s telling, the owner of the bakery is another man, but they opted for a female boss. Yehoshua’s response was simple and enthusiastic, Riklis said.
“When the producer told him, he said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
“The Human Resources Manager,” directed by Eran Riklis, opens March 4 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Broadway and 62nd Street, (212)757-2280 or www.lincolnplazacinema.co, and at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., (212) 330-8182 or www.landmarktheatres.com/market/newyork.