Cool, inflammatory Israeli films at S.F. international fest

If you have the will, and the stomach, to handle tough questions about the health of Israel’s soul, the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival provides three exceptionally provocative opportunities.

Eran Kolirin, who scored a global hit with “The Band’s Visit,” a droll, culture-shock fable of Egyptian-Israeli connection, returns with an even more challenging study of alienation and inertia.

Set in an unidentified Israeli city only slightly warmer than the sharp-angled environs where Michelangelo Antonioni’s unfulfilled urbanites flitted, “The Exchange” centers on a 20-something married couple estranged from their daily lives and going through the motions.

It isn’t lethargy but a disquieting current of unremitting tension that propels “Policeman,” Nadav Lapid’s riveting debut feature about an ultra-masculine, top-drawer cop, control artist and soon-to-be father. To many viewers, this tough, buff character will provide reassuring evidence of Israel’s unyielding ability to defend itself from enemies.

Oded (Rotem Keinan) awakens from his lethargy and becomes suddenly aware of his surroundings in “The Exchange.” photo/sfiff

The movie’s focus shifts in the second half to a quartet of young, radicalized Ashkenazi Jews — left-wing children of the well-off establishment, mostly — and their lead-up to a potentially bloody mission. The policeman, who is in fact a practiced counterterrorism pro, is accustomed to combating external threats (read Arabs) but not other Jews.

Food for discussion? More like a smorgasbord.

Israel’s treatment of the other — the Palestinians — informs Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s quietly infuriating legal brief, “The Law in These Parts.” The director, who’s worked in both fiction (“James’ Journey to Jerusalem”) and documentary (“The Inner Tour”), interviews several retired military lawyers and judges by way of deliberately tracing the gradual, subtle ways in which four decades of rulings (including a handful by the Israeli Supreme Court) allowed, tacitly endorsed and unwittingly contributed to the current state of affairs in the disputed territories.

I’m choosing my words carefully, as does one retiree defending the job he did under difficult circumstances: “This is a limitation of the system, where security comes before human rights.”

“Policeman” and “The Law in These Parts” are expected to receive theatrical releases, and full reviews will wait until then. Each film screens three times during the festival, which runs Thursday, April 19 through May 3 at multiple Bay Area venues, with the directors scheduled to attend.

These will likely be the only local dates for “The Exchange,” a curiously fascinating existential puzzle that Kolirin — who’s also slated to come to town for the festival — has adamantly maintained is not a political film. Certainly the central characters, an unassuming college physics instructor on track for his Ph.D. and his wife, a newly minted and unemployed architect, could reside in any major city in any developed country.

This being Israel, though, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to see their numb adherence to routine, their monotone yet socially acceptable and occasionally productive existence as a form of denial of Israel’s unresolved problems.

The emptiness of Oded (Rotem Keinan) and Tami’s (Sharon Tal) life is expressed by a bland visual style along with the complete absence of music (until late in the film, when its appearance makes the viewer smile, as well as scratch his head). The only times the couple are present and come alive are during a pair of galvanizing sex scenes, proving they at least possess some functioning animal instincts.

Impelled to break his routine and return home in the middle of the day to retrieve a forgotten file, Oded is awakened, very slightly, to his sleepwalking state. His behavior changes in small, mysterious and disturbing ways that leave us more concerned for his well-being than when he was in a drone state.

“The Exchange,” like much of everyday life, can be viewed as deadpan comedy or postmodern tragedy. Oded’s minor-key transformation, if such a word can be applied to this uncommunicative dweeb, is open to a range of interpretations. Not one to aim too high, he attempts a jailbreak from his self-created prison simply to see and, more important, be seen.

This is Oded’s new purpose: to be noticed, to make a ripple, to have an effect and, just possibly, to feel something.

For screening dates, times and locations, visit the San Francisco International Film Festival at http://festival.sffs.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.