An inscrutable drama about a poetic prodigy. The verse may be reminiscent of Monty Python, but this Israeli film about a woman trying to rescue a poetry-spouting child from the world’s corrupting influence is still fascinating and perplexing.
By Jordan Hoffman
Rare is the movie where you are rooting for someone to kidnap a five-year-old child. Yet The Kindergarten Teacher, Nadav Lapid’s follow-up to his extraordinary film Policeman, slowly lays down bricks for this strangely logical path.
Nira (Sarit Larry) is a kindergarten teacher and empty-nest mother with an intellectual/artistic itch. One day she notices something curious about one of her young pupils. Yoav (Avi Schnaidman), a boy with ragamuffin’s hair but a somewhat weary, pained look on his face, will sometimes begin pacing back and forth. “I have a poem,” he’ll announce, and then burst with non-rhyming verse of a vocabulary and syntax well beyond his years.
Is this something supernatural, like the little boy in The Shining? The movie doesn’t go that route. It takes everything at extreme face value, and soon Nira is following little Yoav around with a notebook, waiting for him to spout some more words of wisdom. Try as she might, she can’t provoke one of his reveries. Not by shoving an ant in his face or forcing him to get down on the ground to see the world as a cat. She just has to be patient.
In the meantime, she snoops into his family life. His mother is out of the picture and his father is a not-very-cuddly business-focused restaurateur. (A now-estranged uncle is a published poet, and hearing him read is, it is presumed, what planted this unrealistic seed.) Nira, who oddly enough had been taking some night school poetry classes, realizes that in just a few years Yoav will grow up into our modern junk society of pop culture garbage. This would-be Mozart will have no one to nurture him unless she steps up and becomes his protector.
It’s that calling that leads to The Kindergarten Teacher’s thrilling final third, but there are a lot of slow, strange scenes along the way. As with Policeman, which weaves two stories of a fringe leftist group and an anti-terrorism taskforce to an eventual collision at a hostage situation, Lapid is a very unpredictable film-maker. There are moments where the fourth wall is broken, elaborate tracking shots, lengthy fly-on-the-wall observational moments and even an imagined musical number. These methods do keep you on your toes, as well as preventing you from knowing just how seriously you are supposed to take the actions on screen.
Perhaps Yoav’s utterances land more heavily in their original Hebrew, but translated into English subtitles, some of the recitations aren’t quite as emotionally devastating as may have been intended. (I, for one, was reminded of the Monty Python Webb’s Wonder sketch). But you don’t need to be moved by the words to feel for the characters. Lapid will then pull the rug out when participants at a poetry reading will head to a discotheque for an extended, absurd dance break that could rank alongside Beau Travail, Dogtooth or Ex Machina.
Nira’s vigilantism is noble but pointless. She knows there is nowhere she can take Yoav where he won’t be found. The modern world will eventually sap his gifts. Even if he were nurtured, Yoav’s talents have no audience. His uncle may be published, but still scrounges for work at a dying newspaper. The poetry reading Nira attends is a circus-like affair, with repulsive “slam”-style poets polluting the room. It’s even more perplexing if you are a philistine like me and respond to Yoav’s prose with more of a shrug than tears.
But one could only assume Lapid wanted it this way. Had Yoav been a piano prodigy, this would be an entirely different film. A young boy with an uncaring father playing heart-wrenching Chopin Études is just too easy. As with poetry itself, you need to work to root out the meaning. Indeed, the rarefied air works in Lapid’s favor, as potential signifiers begin popping up everywhere. Add to this Israeli cinema’s unfair advantage that, even if a movie isn’t about a Biblical allegory or a commentary on the political situation, your mind is primed to pick up on cues. The football team the children sing profanity-laced songs about are the Maccabees. A final moment of solace takes place while bathing in the Red Sea. Yoav’s flighty nanny is an Ethiopian immigrant, and an actress. All of this has to mean something, right? It makes for one of the most fascinating, if inscrutable films of the year.