Nadav Lapid’s first feature film, “Policeman,” was a startling, terse essay in futility, pitting a group of obsessive anti-terrorist cops against a no-less committed and equally out-of-control radical cell in a showdown that underlined the absurdity of empty, self-aggrandizing gestures. His new film, “The Kindergarten Teacher,” playing in this year’s New Directors/New Films series opening this week, would at first glance seem to be as utterly unlike that debut as could be possibly imagined.
Where “Policeman” is about compulsive behavior freighted with potential violence, focusing its attention on competing versions of machismo (or machisma), the title character of “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a gentle, caring and nurturing figure, kind to the children in her care, warm and supportive of her family and deeply committed to the art of poetry.
Nira (Sarit Larry) is dedicated to the 5-year-olds in her charge, but particularly so to Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), who seems to be a child prodigy of Mozartean proportions. Periodically he will go into a near-trance state, announcing, “I have a poem,” after which he paces deliberately and recites his latest verses while his nanny (Ester Rada) takes down his words. As Nira becomes aware of the boy’s apparent gift, which the film wisely never explains, she becomes concerned with his future well-being.
Yoav’s father is a prominent restaurateur, something of a philistine who has no intentions of seeing his only child become a “loser, a whiner” like his uncle, a failed poet who is now a reporter for a dying daily newspaper. Yoav believes his mother is dead, although it is more likely that she is somewhere in the States with a younger lover. Because Lapid never takes us outside Nira’s consciousness until the film’s very last shot, we have no way of knowing the truth, nor are we ever allowed to see Yoav’s life outside school.
Lapid’s choice of narrative engines is a cunning one. For most of the film, we experience Nira as a concerned figure whose primary desire is to nurture and protect the small boy’s gift in a society that she sees as hostile to poetry. As she warns him towards the end of the film, “This world will erase you, Yoav.”
The filmmaker underlines this sense of cultural menace through his cleverly designed soundtrack, which shows us a contemporary urban Israel in which most of the music is techno and dance noise, television is a riot of vulgar banality, and classical music exists mainly to be used as a tony backdrop to upper-middle-class conversation. It’s a world in which Lapid wittily skewers Nira’s poetry class as a collection of self-absorbed, cliché-spouting knuckleheads, and the poetry reading at which she unveils Yoav’s talent as a cynical farce. Only the actual kindergarten class seems to be spared from Lapid’s icy glare, and even there, Saint-Saen’s “The Swan” is played as a soporific for naptime.
As in “Policeman,” Lapid paints this picture with precision, a welter of brilliantly worked-out camera movements that capture his protagonists within the restless, compulsive energy that drives them, finally, in circles. In the end, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is not all that dissimilar from its predecessor, with an impulsive act of rebellion that cannot succeed in confirming Lapid’s Yeatsian apocalyptic vision, his conviction that “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Disquieting, no doubt, and one may reject its predictive powers, but as a piece of filmmaking, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is an intoxicating ride.
The 44th annual New Directors/New Films series, presented by the Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs through March 29. The programs, which include 26 feature films and 16 shorts from across the globe, will take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.) and the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.); for information, go to www.MoMA.org or www.filmlinc.com. “The Kindergarten Teacher,” written and directed by Nadav Lapid, will be shown March 24 at 8:45 p.m. at the Walter Reade and March 25 at 6:15 p.m. at MoMA.