"Policeman" is an austere and fatalistic film, a discomforting and despairing look at Israeli society through the parallel examination of subcultures inevitably fated to clash.
The debut feature for writer-director Nadav Lapid, "Policeman" was released in Israel in 2011 and is only now getting to this country. That's probably because its style is intense and inexorable and its uncompromising view of Israel as a land of extremists and extremes is not exactly a warm one.
Also unusual is the film's focus on divisions that have little to do with the Palestinian question but, rather, with the economic gap between rich and poor that has been much on the minds of Israelis in recent years.
Though you don't know it at first, "Policeman" is a film divided into sections, and the most impressive is the initial one, a riveting portrait of Yaron, the policeman of the title, played with unswerving conviction by Yiftach Klein, memorable as the charismatic male lead in "Fill the Void."
Yaron is not a policeman in the traffic cop sense. He is a member of an elite anti-terrorism unit whose mandate from the Israeli Defense Ministry apparently includes targeted assassinations.
The fanatically fit Yaron is not just a member of his squad; he is its alpha male leader, a dynamic that director Lapid nicely conveys by opening the film with all of the squad's five members bicycling steadily up a steep hill in the middle of nowhere, with Yaron confidently in the lead, pedaling right up to the camera, his face framed in an enormous close-up.
An intense, take-charge individual who wants to be in control of all aspects of his life, up to and including the last stages of the pregnancy of his wife, Nili (Meital Berdah), Yaron is a compelling character who has no difficulty making his own rules and forcing others to live by them.
Also well done is Yaron's relationship with his closer-than-brothers team, a group that is facing difficulties when the film begins because of unnecessary civilian deaths during one of their operations and because a key member, Ariel (Gal Hoyberger), has serious health issues.
About halfway through its running time, and with absolutely no warning, "Policeman" switches gears and focuses on a completely new set of individuals, people who could not be more different than the ones we've been dealing with up to now.
This would be a handful of privileged young people who are deeply troubled by Israel's large and growing gap between rich and poor. Spearheaded by the brooding poet Shirea (Yaara Pelzig), these idealistic rebels against society have a belief in violent revolution as a way to make things better that inevitably brings them into contact with Yaron and his team.
While this is fascinating in theory, one problem "Policeman" has is that this group increasingly feels like a construct rather than a reality. These people are not nearly as well drawn or dramatically convincing as Yaron and his pals, which leads to a loss of plausibility as well as credibility as events progress.
Still, Lapid's filmmaking skill helps keep us involved, as does "Policeman's" philosophical underpinnings. For the implication that these groups are two sides of the same coin, high-minded zealots in a land where fanaticism is the rule and nonviolent solutions not high on the collective mind, is both disturbing and hard to escape.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing at: Arena Cinema, Hollywood