Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Nadav Lapid
Screenplay: Nadav Lapid
Runtime: 119 minutes.
Cast: Sarit Larry, Avi Shnaidman, Lior Raz.
Plot: Nira is a kindergarten teacher and lover of poetry who becomes convinced that her five-year-old charge, Yoav, is a boy genius and Mozart of contemporary poetry. Acquiring the poems as her own, she seeks out professional opinion which validates their worth; but she must entangle herself more and more inappropriately in Yoav’s life to ensure that none of his flashes of inspiration are lost. It rapidly becomes clear that she is unsure how far she will take this intervention, leading to tragic results.
Review: Writer-director Nadav Lapid has produced something incredibly strange in The Kindergarten Teacher, creating a narrative that seems ready-made for an uplifting Hollywood tale of success and genius then turning it on its head. This is accomplished through exploring the dark, obsessive side that Nira (Sarit Larry) demonstrates in wanting to gain recognition for the talent of her young student Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), a poetic savant. Lapid deftly weaves in many troubling, partially explored implications into the narrative – by some measures too many. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Larry effectively conveying the genuine concern for Yoav and producing subtle gradations of character that make her increasingly inappropriate interventions into his life believable. One is left with the unsettling question of whether it was belief in his genius or a mid-life crisis desire for control that drives her. Avi Shnaidman is similarly poised and touching, particularly surprising for his youth and a compliment for Lapid given the performance he elicits.
But what to make of the film itself? The world of poetry is obviously on the agenda, and Lapid is at pains to convey the view of poetry as almost naïve and capturing the pure essence of the world – the proper subjects here being unrequited love, rain, the sun, a matador and bull. A meeting with a local poetry group which Nira attends illustrates the manner in which these simple themes are stretched, distorted, and reproduced within a fun-house mirror of interpretation that tramples the beauty of the text. A nice touch is the annoying student that objects to everything in a terribly prosaic and over-academic manner; anyone who has suffered through a writing class thinking it would be an easy credit knows a student like this. Ultimately though, Yoav’s innocence and the purity of his words proves no protection from the adult word; indeed, this doubles as the theme of the film as other adult concerns mount and intrude. Some political notes are added but not emphasised; one poet remarking ‘They didn’t shoot Lorca for nothing,’ and the abstract discussion poorly rehashing a dialogue that has been carried on since Plato’s Ion, in which he dismissed the truth of poetry and later in The Republic banning the poets on the grounds of epistemic shakiness and moral corruption (it is a Platonic argument to do with the passions, and four ascending forms apprehending of truth; according to Plato, poets score poorly on the scale of apperception! He uses some funny arguments about the trade techniques described in The Illiad as being incorrect and misleading – anyway, wasted enough of your time on an irrelevancy; it is an amusingly typical line of reasoning for Plato is all).
The question of whether or not Yoav is a genius or a talented mimic is not resolved, and gradually dissolves as a point of tension within the film; although incidental evidence – such as an amusing, verbatim recital of football chanting trash talk performed by Yoav and his friend – tends towards the latter. A later scene shows the children singing what I think was Aleih Neiri – a song about Judah Maccabee, a 2nd century BCE Jewish priest and leader of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, as well as the greatest Jewish warrior. It goes:
Come hear the story of Judah Maccabee,
The mighty hero who set our people free,
The mighty Judah Maccabee, set us free.
This suggests the regular adult content of violence and ideology that we are happy to expose young children to, yet we shirk from other forms of sexual or personal honesty. Nira tells Yoav that ‘being a poet in our world means opposing the nature of the world,’ building the disturbing tone that marks the second half of the film. In one scene I worried that the film would repeat the incident from the opening of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, minus the sexual content (although that is present elsewhere).
What prevents the film from succeeding are several distracting elements, layered onto an already complex exploration of the uncomfortable relationship between an adult and a child. Lapid draws attention to the fact that we only accept meaningful adult-child relationships within the structure of the family and family members, every other sort is rendered suspect if it is too close; and he paints the space of the child beautifully. The space of the adult is far less convincingly drawn, leading me to believe that perhaps he wanted to add a childish confusion to scenes that contain only adults. This results in some unfortunately bizarre images; a strange threesome chicken dance, quite a few frontal shots of wrinkled cocks, some disturbing but pedestrian sex scenes.
Some technical choices are also baffling; Lapid places the physicality of the camera within the frame so it can be hit, captured by a child, stared into, serenaded, as if this is some revolutionary cinematic approach worthy in itself (although irrelevant to the film, and absolutely distracting to me). Yet it has been about for a while, and has been used to great effect even in television shows such asBreaking Bad. This is not the most beautifully or interestingly composed film you will ever see, but it does an excellent job of conveying the poetry that Nira pushes Yoav to examine within the world. Yoav’s ‘poems’ are genuinely arresting, as well as the varied performances they are given; pieces of dialogue are striking or amusingly pretentious or both, as in the poetry lecturer’s comment that ‘like the poet the bull never obeys. He keeps fighting until his death.’ But the rest of the script remains largely unremarkable.
The Kindergarten Teacher is an interesting film, but it is hard to recommend it. There is certainly much more thought that can be given to the issues and images it summons, I am just not sure how fruitful that contemplation might turn out to be.
Rating: Three Stars.