OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

The Kindergarten Teacher

(Haganenet)

Can a 5-year-old boy be a literary genius? And if so, how might his precocious gift be nurtured and protected? These are, on the surface, among the main questions posed by The Kindergarten Teacher, a self-assured, remarkably powerful film from the Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid.

Poster art for The Kindergarten TeacherThe teacher is Nira (Sarit Larry), a woman with a warm professional manner and pleasant, ordinary middle-class life. She has a son in the army, a daughter in high school and a devoted husband (Lior Raz) with a decent government job. As a hobby – or perhaps as a vehicle for unexpressed ambitions and frustrated desires – she attends a poetry workshop with other amateur versifiers. Then one day she witnesses a startling act of creation. One of her pupils, a cherubic, sleepy-eyed boy named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), is being picked up at the end of the school day. ‘I have a poem,’ he announces and recites a brief, elliptical love lyric, pacing back and forth as his nanny writes his words in a notebook.

Nira is startled and intrigued, and the evolution of her interest in Yoav drives the film’s suspenseful, unnerving, bizarre and strangely believable plot. At first, like any conscientious teacher, she is solicitous and encouraging. It’s always good to recognize and celebrate what is special in a child. The budding bard is in most respects a perfectly ordinary child, roughhousing and practising swear words with his best pal, playing in the sandbox and demanding snacks when he’s hungry. It’s possible to read signs of unusual intelligence in his expressions, but his most prominent feature is a face that seems created to invite a grandmother’s pinches.

But Nira, a 20-year veteran of the kindergarten classroom, is immune to his cuteness. He acts serious in her company because that’s what she expects and also perhaps because he’s a little confused by her attention. She wakes him up from his nap and takes him outside in the rain, hoping to stimulate his creativity. She takes over from the nanny as his principal secretary and spends more and more time with him outside school. She signs him up for a poetry reading. And then things become really strange.

For most of the movie, Mr. Lapid keeps Nira on the near side of normalcy. The Kindergarten Teacher works perfectly well as a subtle, astute psychological drama, venturing into thriller territory toward the end. The director and his cinematographer, Shai Goldman, favour shallow-focus compositions and low, odd angles. At times you feel like a child observing the grown-up world, peering up at legs and hands, trying to decode the meaning of gestures and words. At other times, as the camera tiptoes around conversations and peeks over shoulders, you feel like a spy or a voyeur, privy to vaguely inappropriate information.

‘Being a poet in our world is going against the nature of the world,’ Nira says, and the most surprising – the most radical – aspect of The Kindergarten Teacher is how fiercely it defends that view. Yoav may be, in the eyes of a reasonable viewer, an odd kid with an unusual knack for language. Nira, for her part, may be a frustrated poet sliding from midlife crisis into mental instability. Certainly there is no condoning the extremes to which she takes her pedagogical mission.

The Kindergarten Teacher is a furious indictment of the materialism and complacency of 21st-century life, in Israel and implicitly beyond. Yoav, innocent and barely conscious of the meaning of his poems, is the uncanny voice of a disinherited tradition. His father, a flashy restaurateur, has no use for poetry. The boy’s uncle, who published a volume of verses before drifting into bitterness and penury as a journalist, is a grim specter of literary failure. Such poets as exist in the world – the shouters at the reading, Nira’s workshop instructor – run the gamut from vulgar to pretentious.

The Kindergarten Teacher – the film as well as the character – yearns for different values, for intensity, beauty and meaning. Its sobering lesson is that the search for those things is most likely to end in madness, confusion and violence.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times
 

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