Comedy is serious business.
Consider the new Israeli film “Zero Motivation,” which has its U.S. theatrical premiere here this week at Film Forum. A debut feature for writer-director Talya Lavie, it focuses on three hapless female members of the Israel Defense Forces stationed in a dead-end army camp in the middle of nowhere. They encounter everything from a glass ceiling for woman officers to sexual frustration, from date rape and the generally vile behavior of their male counterparts to the soul-grinding boredom of utterly pointless office work.
Despite these grave matters at its heart, “Zero Motivation” is usually very, very funny. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, if you are going to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.
And make it both universal and very specific or the theater will be empty, Lavie might add.
She readily admits that she set out to make the film for an Israeli audience, but hoped for a much larger one. Sitting in a cozy home office belonging to the film’s publicist, she is relaxed, if somewhat concerned about her English (which is excellent), grinning and laughing easily.
“I was surprised by the emotional reactions to the film,” she says. “And the Israeli audiences say, ‘It’s so Israeli, there’s so much slang, it works because it’s authentic.’”
The quality to which they are reacting undoubtedly is the film’s spirited and intelligent recreation of the rhythms and routines of drab daily reality, which Lavie’s writing and her cast’s performances capture with unerring, occasionally chilling reality.
Not surprisingly, the film has become of the biggest box-office successes in Israeli film history and won six of the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, winning for best director, best screenplay, best music, best editing, best casting and a best actress award for Dana Ivgy as Zohar, the most intransigent of the office-bound soldiers.
But the film’s success seems to have carried over well beyond Israel’s borders, winning the Best Narrative Award and the Nora Ephron Prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“That [the film] also worked well here was a real surprise,’ Lavie says. “But not so much, because anyone who has ever been a small part of a large system can relate to it.”
The film is structured as a series of three episodes focusing on the increasingly desperate attempts by Daffi (Nelly Tagar) to be sent to Tel Aviv, Zohar’s no-less-desperate search for someone to deflower her, and the ongoing collision between Zohar and the rest of the IDF, a battle that the army is bound to lose. Lavie depicts the base as a degrading cross between high school and a particularly dire summer camp, and her eye for the power of caste and the social slight is unerring. The film’s shape is actually more intricate than the tripartite structure might suggest, and the way in which the narrative loops in on itself is quite satisfying.
The joke underlying the project is that it started life as Lavie’s attempt to create a heroic epic of military life for the female half of the IDF.
“My first draft of the script was 180 pages long,” she says, grinning broadly. That would translate into a three-hour film, she is told. She nods enthusiastically, adding, “That is why the Israel Film Fund was surprised when I applied for a grant. They said, ‘What is that?’ and I told them, ‘It’s an epic.’”
She elaborates, “It’s an ‘office saga’ and that genre is very epic. The stories are very long and they have epic proportions. But as I rewrote it got shorter and shorter in each new draft.”
The film is now a crisp 100 minutes with no discernible fat, an astute mock-heroic epic worthy of Henry Fielding.
Lavie has repeatedly said that “Zero Motivation” is not an autobiographical film but is still “very personal.”
She is an IDF veteran like the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens. Asked to explain the difference between autobiographical and personal, she replies, “Some of the things in the film happened to me, I felt all the emotions the women in the film felt, my experience was very similar to theirs. But a lot of the events are imaginary. I wanted to combine surrealistic elements with hyperrealistic ones.”
The result is a little bit of “Sergeant Bilko,” but a lot of “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H.” There is a despair, a desperation eating at the hearts of the film’s three central characters, but the comedy wouldn’t happen without it.
“It’s about not being important,” Lavie says. “That [reality] may be insulting to you, but it’s also very freeing. You have nothing to lose, and there is a kind of joy in that, and where those two elements come together is the comedy.” n
“Zero Motivation,” written and directed by Talya Lavie, has its U.S. theatrical premiere on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For more information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.com.