Bored Israeli soldiers drum up own action in Zero Motivation

To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, that paragon of modern storytelling, if a dramatist introduces a gun in the first act, it must go off in the second or third.

Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie adheres to that principle to hilarious effect in her terrific debut feature, “Zero Motivation.” It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s craftiness and skill that we don’t see it coming, even if we registered the portent of the weapon — actually, a staple gun — upon its brief initial appearance.

Set in the most prosaic environment imaginable — a monochrome administrative office at a remote Israeli military base — “Zero Motivation” uses the claustrophobic enclave as a petri dish to expose the myriad ways that women befriend, resent, support and sabotage each other.

Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is an Israel Defense Forces soldier stuck in an office on a remote military base. photo/zeitgeist films

Sullen, sarcastic Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and daydreaming Daffi (Nelly Tagar) have refined very different strategies for getting through their mandatory, unfulfilling army service. Zohar spends every minute at her job playing games on her computer, while Daffi devotes her waking hours to getting transferred to Tel Aviv.

Zohar, in particular, and Daffi think they know how to work the angles and cut the corners of this particular bureaucracy. So we root for the less-than-dynamic duo, then watch as most of the deadpan and biting humor in Lavie’s impeccably thought-out screenplay derives from fate conspiring against them.

Their antics, as you might imagine, aren’t remotely amusing to their short-tempered commanding officer, Rama, who is doggedly pursuing a promotion (and respect in the eyes of the male officers). In another movie Zohar and Daffi might be moved to help a sister, but not this one.

“Zero Motivation,” which won six Ophir Awards (known as the Israeli Oscars) and premiered locally at last summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, Dec. 12 around the Bay Area. Tagar will be doing Q&As following some screenings on Dec. 12 and 14 in San Francisco, and Dec. 13 in Berkeley (check theaters for details).

Although its budget wouldn’t cover the sandal polish used in that biblical epic also hitting theaters Dec. 12, the indie movie offers a more enjoyable and satisfying experience.

It may seem counterintuitive that Lavie chose a traditionally and overwhelmingly male setting in which to examine female relationships, but it serves her theme perfectly. Given their low status, we would expect the young women in the office to bond and band together, but they can’t be bothered to transcend their prejudices and rivalries. (The dark-haired kibbutznik Zohar and the blonde Russian immigrant Irena abhor each other, for example, for no rational reason.)

Effortlessly demolishing the myth of the tough female Israeli soldier, “Zero Motivation” depicts these paper pushers and shredders as utterly superfluous to the military effort. Zohar’s obsession with the computer game Minesweeper only underscores the gulf between the desk and the field.

The men on the base, meanwhile, are largely extraneous to the gals’ day-to-day existence. A male soldier does figure in the second of the film’s blackly comic three episodes, “The Virgin,” but it is telling that no woman is defined in terms of his character.

In fact, “Zero Motivation” is about the things women without men do, to paraphrase rocker-turned-actor Steve Van Zandt.

The film is especially adroit at taking the starch out of the military’s collar without resorting to lame cheap shots or cartoonish exaggeration. From the first staff meeting to which we’re privy, where the officers’ coffee and snacks seemingly comprise an essential agenda item, the filmmaker undermines the illusion of no-nonsense national security.

The movie begins with the off-screen sound of a photocopier, which does not have the galvanizing effect, shall we say, of a helicopter or siren. It’s a perverse but amusing choice that pays off in a big way in the third act.

Unlike many independent filmmakers, Talya Lavie knows how to sustain a movie and surprise an audience all the way to the end. Even at this busy time of year, it’s worth a special effort to see a talented female filmmaker’s debut.

“Zero Motivation” opens Friday, Dec. 12 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. (Unrated, in Hebrew with English subtitles, 100 minutes)

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.