Review: The Kindergarten Teacher (Lapid, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

The Kindergarten Teacher is a Hebrew-language film that screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring.

Kindergarten teacher by day, aspiring poetess by night, Nira (Sarit Larry) leads a fairly humdrum life. Her children already grown, she and her husband live alone in their anonymous skyscraper apartment, making occasional, dispassionate love. One day she notices one of her pupils, five-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), pacing and reciting poetry, as if in a trance. Amazed, she watches him intently, her curiosity and admiration aroused. When questioned by Nira, Yoav’s nanny casually relates his situation: his mother abandoned her family, presumably for another lover (Yoav, however, thinks she’s dead); Yoav’s father is a wealthy restaurateur who basically neglects his son, constantly leaving him in the care of strangers; the child learned poetry from his literary uncle, who used it to console him for the loss of his mother.

Nira soon becomes obsessed with the child and with understanding the pattern of and inspiration for his poems. Try as she might, however, she cannot coax him to compose on demand. He transmits the poems almost as if he were possessed by another being–a poetic djinn, if you will; once recited, the poems are gone forever. Desperate to protect and nurture Yoav’s gift in the face of his family’s indifference, Nira goes to increasingly outlandish lengths to ensure his poetry gets the attention she feels it deserves.

An interesting premise, no doubt. The problem is that Nira is remarkably unlikable. Not in a she’s-flawed-and-perhaps-terrible-but-I-can-understand-her-and-even-relate-to-her kind of way (in the manner of Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert), but in a she’s-repugnant-and-outrageous-and-I-can’t-figure-her-out-at-all kind of way. Director Nadav Lapid seems intent on keeping her impenetrable. Not her general motives, exactly–those are plain enough–but her moment-to-moment reasoning, the why of each action. Or perhaps I can guess her reasoning, and I am revolted by its duplicity, its selfishness, its callousness. And yet those descriptors feel woefully inadequate, even inaccurate–I think because Nira is inconsistent to such an extreme degree that she doesn’t feel real. And without being able to feel the realness of her, I have to wonder why the movie was made at all. Nothing is illuminated, nothing explored. We are not even let in to the mind of this demented woman; her bizarre behavior lives in a vacuum with no antecedent in her pre-Yoav life and no explanation for why she might risk everything on a plan that any sane person could tell would only end in spectacular failure. It seems that she is merely bored–perhaps without even knowing it–and Yoav awakens in her some strain of passion. Indeed, in one scene, after what a typical person would consider a humiliating experience, we see her dancing with abandon in a night club filled with young people. She also commits adultery (with a sort of slack-jawed detachment, as if watching herself from afar). She seems untouched by any emotion save a single-minded determination to promote Yoav’s gifts.

The film ends as it must, I suppose. You feel it driving there with a mixture of doom and dread and disgust. And then it’s over.