' ' Cinema Romantico: The Kindergarten Teacher

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher

Writer/Director Nadav Lapid is not interested in the subtle. It’s tempting to term “The Kindergarten Teacher” an allegory, but that suggests some sort of hidden meaning and Lapid is up front, out loud, in your face, and from the very first moment too, in which we see the titular Nira’s (Sarit Larry) husband (Lior Raz), who does not even get a name for his character, suggesting the idleness of his own existence, zoned out to some mindless TV show while lazing on the sofa, and when his wife enters with a notebook in hand, her face not even in the frame, as if he can’t see her for who she is and what she likes and what she wants, he says, “Is this another one of your poems?” The tone in his voice is not merely dismissive, it’s quietly mocking.

It’s a precise tone-setter, a solid evocation of a life that has left Nira wandering in an emotional fog. Though she never specifies it, she is clearly wounded by a failure of achieving or even attempting to seek out an artistic life of her own, opting instead for a humdrum routine, settling down, taking a stable job and raising her kids. We see her in an amateur poetry class where they debate like slightly more advanced versions of the students in Grover’s writing class in “Kicking and Screaming.” Nira’s work makes no indentation. And when she sees a pupil, five year old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), stomping back and forth, belting out verse like a poet savant, something within her snaps.

She passes his poems off as her own, first in class and then in more public spaces, but this never quite becomes the point. It’s never merely a school bound version of Salieri and Mozart, to whom Nira briefly compares Yoav, because it’s not so much jealousy that overtakes her as zealotry. She needs to foster this child’s genius at any cost, even if it means pulling him aside at school and trying to wrestle that genius out, even if it means defying the Yoav’s father, rich and royally contemptuous with the idea of any child, never mind his own, fixating on a life in the effete cultural arts.

We never see things from Yoav’s point of view. What fuels his poetry is left deliberately ambiguous, and whether his work is any good or not is beside the point. The on-screen jury seems split. But Nira knows it’s priceless, like we – me, you – might fall in love with some unknown band and declare them The Greatest Band In The World whether or not anyone falls in line with our fanatical assertion.

The longer this goes on, the more Lapid ratchets up the main character’s obsession, though it is often left to rumble quietly as opposed to loudly and violently. It re-arouses Nira erotically, never more so than in the explicit single take of leaving her husband in the middle of foreplay to take a phone call from her protégé and transcribe another poem. In moments like this her disconnect with reality becomes frighteningly palpable, and yet Larry plays the part delicately, never allowing the performance to become operatically unhinged, oscillating not simply scene to scene but moment to moment from an understated romantic grandeur to a low-key craziness that makes you curl up with dread. Even when she absconds with Yoav near the end, it never seems rash even though it also isn’t exactly calculated. She keeps it grounded. She’s operating from a place entirely of reason…at least, as she sees it.

Late in the film Nira brings her protégé, of sorts, to a poetry reading. As they prepare to take the stage, the current poet makes her exit, and though her just-finished reading was chock full of oratorical bluster, she seems entirely indifferent to her own performance, immediately reverting to offstage behavior, biting into an apple, like she knows none of it really mattered much. The look on Nira’s face as she passes is a kind of angry incredulity. How she can this other so-called poet take such a vital thing so flippantly? And that is Nira’s ultimate downfall, though she herself might quibble with the label “downfall”, preferring to argue that “did what she had to do” to make people “see the light”. Whether or not they do is up to them, of course, but Nira, tragic, comical, even terrifying, has gone past that point. This apathy toward cultural arts has brought her to the brink of madness, and she goes right over the edge, willingly, because if she stays where she is, what’s left?

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