Two different types of tribalism come into deadly conflict in the provocative Israeli drama “Policeman.” Divided loosely into thirds, with an occasional loopy visual reminiscent of Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” this fascinating but uneven pic has a conceptual rigor that doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing or even a smooth narrative whole. Nevertheless, it reps a strong debut from tyro helmer-writer Nadav Lapid, and will leave audiences debating the current social and philosophical issues it reflects. Further fest travel and niche arthouse play are in the cards for this Locarno fest competition entry.
Thirtysomething Yaron (Yiftach Klein) is part of an elite anti-terrorism police unit of the Israeli government, tacitly allowed to perform undercover assassinations of Arab enemies. Firmly believing he lives in the finest country in the world, Yaron is proud of his job, his strong, muscular physique and his status as an expectant father. Although the policeman’s family unit is depicted as tight, his bond with his squadron is tighter still. Yaron has been with most of his comrades since army service, and they thrive in each other’s company at work and play.
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Lapid depicts the milieu of the policemen with an exaggerated machismo that borders on the erotic. Every time they meet, these buff hunks clasp hands or pound each other’s backs, the noise of their ultra-physical greeting dominating the soundtrack. Their attachment to their weaponry is also rendered sexual. Admiring the shape of a teen waitress, Yaron displays his gun, and asks if she wants to touch it.
About 50 minutes in, just as viewers wonder where all this is going and how far Lapid will take this imagery, the story shifts without explanation to follow another gun-worshipping tribe, a band of Jewish radicals who plot class warfare through violent means. Led by handsome blond Natanel (Michael Aloni) and pouty poetess Shira (Yaara Pelzig), these fanatical youngsters infiltrate the Jerusalem wedding of a billionaire’s daughter and take hostages of the rich and powerful in order to bring their manifesto to the national media. When Yaron’s unit is called to restore order, the policeman, who cannot comprehend a Jewish terrorist, is forced to confront a new reality.
Pic’s first (and longest) third is the most interesting, and not without humor as Yaron admires himself in the mirror while holding another man’s infant, or dances naked in front of his heavily pregnant wife. The second section plays more problematically, with less likable characters whose beliefs are as unshakable as those held by the policemen, but depicted as less rational given their privileged backgrounds and puerile reasoning.
Along the way, Lapid’s ambitious screenplay intros other types of tribes, including the aggressive punks who destroy Shira’s car, the lesbians and artists at the club Shira visits the night before their operation, and the captains of industry whose lives the government orders the police to preserve at all costs.
Thesping is highly stylized, particularly in the second section, in which the young revolutionaries share a blank-eyed stare. Evocative lensing by Shai Goldman (“The Band’s Visit”) is at its best in sun-drenched outdoor scenes, where it effortlessly captures tribal bonds and hierarchies.
“Policeman” scored awards for screenplay and cinematography at the Jerusalem Film Festival.