Opinions will be sharply divided on Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a mannered story about the titular character and her obsession with a 5-year-old, poetry-spouting wunderkind. Precisely lensed in an intriguing style that often makes the camera an additional protag, the pic is more artificial than the helmer’s debut, “Policeman,” and has a much narrower focus, being a cool-headed denunciation of crass contempo life and its inability to value the poetic. Always engrossing but also perplexing and offering little deeper than the obvious, “Teacher” still reps a new development in a striking, idiosyncratic director and will see strong fest rotation.
Just from the opening frames, audiences will know they should be paying attention to what, and how, the camera sees: For several minutes, Nira (Sarit Larry) doesn’t come into full frame if her husband (Lior Raz) is also in the scene. Instead, while he’s watching a loud, inane TV show, her head is conspicuously out of view; apart from sexual compatibility, there’s little to bring these two together. Once Nira’s in her kindergarten classroom, the camera takes on a p.o.v. role or observes from a position so close to her body as to be practically a second head, roaming about the space and scanning her pupils.
Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), one of her charges, spontaneously invents poems which he dictates to nanny Miri (Ester Rada). Obviously it’s unusual for a 5-year-old, but more striking are the sophisticated words and elliptical meanings, which, Nira remarks, are the compositions of someone “who’s seen much beauty.” Yoav’s short biography doesn’t fit that statement: His mother ran off with a lover and his father, Amnon (Yehezkel Lazarov), is a hotshot restaurateur with little time for his son. The kid’s exposure to poetry came through an uncle (Dan Toren) who is now less involved in the child’s life.
Nira is utterly taken by this prodigy and decides his talent must be nurtured. While other pupils are napping, she gets him up and teaches him concepts: evil by crushing an ant for no reason, violence by slapping herself, pain by pinching her skin. In the adult poetry class she attends, she reads one of Yoav’s compositions, claiming it as her own; her appropriation isn’t very different from that of Miri, who uses the poems during acting auditions, but Nira isn’t willing to share this boy wonder with someone only superficially appreciative, and she gets the nanny fired by telling Amnon that Miri is using his son’s verses.
The fascination with Yoav becomes an obsession, with Nira determined to protect his primal talent before the passage from boyhood to adolescence changes his purity. She meets with Amnon, but his interest lies in money and its trappings, leaving no room for poetry. More appreciative is her own teacher Oded (Hamuchtar), still believing Nira is the author of the verses and praising her for shedding her initial banality (such compliments also help him seduce his pupil, calling into question any genuine depth he superficially projects). Having confirmed Yoav’s talent, she’s ready to push him forward as the author, but to ensure his continued innocence, she’ll have to protect the child from modern society’s crass bulldozing of mystery and beauty.
The world no longer appreciates grace and individuality: Is that really all there is to the message behind “The Kindergarten Teacher”? After the far tougher implications of “Policeman,” one looks in vain for deeper meaning in Lapid’s follow-up: After all, every distinctive camera movement, every artificial gaze seems to be pregnant with meaning, signaling subtext. Yoav’s first poem, about a woman named Hagar, challenges auds to question whether using the name Hagar, the biblical mother of all Arabs, means Lapid is commenting on Israeli politics. But no: There are no hidden allusions, only the generically valid point that we’ve strangled our souls on the altar of Mammon. Wait — doesn’t that idea come from the Bible, too?
Once it’s clear there’s nothing else going on underneath the straightforward story (aside from casual references to the Ashkenazi-Sephardic divide), Lapid’s stylizations become intriguing exercises rather than signifiers of meaning. Nira’s otherworldly qualities — she has a “normal” family life with husband and two kids, yet walks through everything as if in a vacuum of concentration — will fascinate some and annoy others. Actress Larry uses her pale blue eyes to convey a sense of seeking more than what can be seen, though the script makes her merely a collection of traits (disturbing ones at that) rather than an integrated person. This lack of wholeness may be exactly Lapid’s point, since the conformity of home life stands apart from her obsession with Yoav, but there remains something missing that would make it all meaningful.
The striking character of Miri, the nanny/actress who exudes confidence in her long-legged beauty, gets lost just when it seems she’s about to develop (this through no fault of Rada, a singer with terrific screen presence). Young Shnaidman is an exceptional performer — at his age, it’s impossible to know how much is performance and how much reality — playing an odd child who’s boisterous with peers and quiet with adults, projecting an unreadable air of distraction. Lapid admits to an autobiographical element in the film, since the poems are his own compositions from when he was Yoav’s age; while they’re exceptional verses from a child that young, they’re not quite the mature wonders the characters claim.
The helmer’s repeat collaboration with d.p. Shai Goldman yields the pic’s greatest rewards thanks to the searching camera’s manner of calling attention to itself. Intense closeups make the figures even more inscrutable as well as haunting, bringing audiences into the performers’ space and forcing us to constantly question what we’re seeing, and how. The answers, however, aren’t nearly as satisfying as the visuals.