Why does everything always have to be about the Palestinians? So Natanel (Michael Aloni) asks Shira (Yaara Pelzig) as she reads the first draft of a manifesto she’s writing for their tiny group of anti-capitalist rebels. Can’t we just make this about what’s happening within our country—the social equities, the wealth gap, the relentless violence?
Natanel gets his wish in Policeman, an Israeli film that was a sleeper hit among the press and industry types who saw last week’s NYFF press screening. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is just one small part of the backdrop here. The showdown is between two insular tribes with a shared love of violence: the young protesters and a clique of not much older cops, whose fatal collision has the somber inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
Writer/director Nadav Lapid starts with the cops, all members of an elite counter-terrorism unit. An insular pod of hard-driving, hard-bodied, testosterone junkies, they’re the kind of guys for whom a new arrival at a backyard barbecue sparks a noisy orgy of back-thumping and chest-bumping.
After marinating in their culture long enough to get to know their leader, Yaron (Yiftach Klein), pretty well, we switch to the protesters. Natanel and Shira are humorless, near-expressionless true believers, but their sidekick Oded (Michael Moshonov) is more like a faithful puppy than a comrade. Impressionable and emotionally volatile, he seems to be loyal to the cause mainly because he’s hopelessly in love with Shira.
We linger a while with this group, too. In a Q&A after the press screening, Lapid explained the logic behind his unusual and effective way of showing the two groups consecutively rather than cutting between them from the start. He dispensed with the parallel cuts, he said, because he didn’t want the focus to be on when or how the two groups would meet. “The question for me was, who are these people? Who are these groups? I tried to describe their existential essence.”
Natanel is officially in charge of the protesters, but it soon becomes clear that Shira is the group’s emotional fulcrum, the one who naturally winds up in charge, as Yaron does with his buddies. She and Yaron each get one lingering extreme close-up that underscores the parallels between the two as they stare into the camera, all willpower and seemingly unshakeable self-confidence.
The two groups meet after the “killer babies,” as the bride contemptuously calls the young protesters, take three hostages at a society wedding. They take the hostages to attract media attention to their manifesto, but they chose them for a reason: they see them as guilty of crimes that include privatizing the nation’s salt mines and cruelly exploiting their workers.
Lapid grants every character his or her dignity, and he makes most easy to empathize with even if they’re not particularly sympathetic. Touching ties between fathers and children help humanize the people involved, motivating heroic acts from both hostages and hostage-takers in the final showdown. But there are no feel-good happy endings in Policeman. These characters are boxed into rigid roles, and though their actions can make things marginally better or (more often) worse, there may be no way out of the mess they wind up in.
Hmm, maybe this is a metaphor for the Israelis and the Palestinians after all.