Satiric, surreal, unexpected and at times wildly funny, “Zero Motivation” is a savage black comedy that eviscerates an unexpected target: the Israeli army, officially known as the IDF. Whatever your image of the Israel Defense Forces is, heroic or otherwise, it’s not what you’re going to see here.
Winner of the narrative feature award at Tribeca as well as a great success in Israel, where it won six Israeli Oscars, including awards for director and screenplay for filmmaker Talya Lavie, “Zero Motivation” takes place in a country where two years of military service is mandatory for 18-year-olds of both sexes.
Instead of dealing with frontline troops or a grueling combat situation, “Zero Motivation” takes you behind the scenes in a human resources office on a remote military base where women’s work includes serving coffee and snacks to officers and filling positions like Postal NCO and Paper and Shredding NCO. And, no, as the title indicates, these soldiers do not work and play well together, and they are not happy in their work.
Though its humor may initially elicit comparisons to “Private Benjamin” or perhaps an Israeli military version of “The Office,” the film’s head-turning changes of tone and its willingness to deal with dark material mean imagining “Private Benjamin” as directed by Luis Buñuel will get you closer to the truth.
Divided into three loosely connected stories involving the same players, “Zero Motivation” is strongest in its characters and its connection to an Israeli reality we can feel even if we’ve never experienced it. And Lavie’s gift for exploring the relationships among women is another area of strength.
“Zero Motivation” takes its tone from the more ornery aspects of the Israeli character, from a culture where conversation can be a contact sport and individuals are congenitally opposed to taking orders from anyone. Even superior officers.
Enter Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), introduced on a crowded bus taking them back to the base after a few days of leave. They are friends who save each other seats, and they are also both fed up to the teeth with the tedium of serving their country by doing nothing in a remote outpost.
Daffi, who dreams of being reassigned to hip Tel Aviv, has complained so much and written so many letters, even to the army’s chief of staff, that she’s become infamous on the base, not that she cares, as “a spoiled brat with made-up problems.”
So when Daffi spies new soldier Tehila (Yonit Tobi) with a lost look on her face, she immediately assumes that this is her long-awaited replacement. She tours Tehila around the office and even inducts her into the mysteries of the staple gun, an office item all but worshiped for its multiple uses.
But because “Zero Motivation” is a film where no one’s plans work out as planned, not even close, things don’t develop the way Daffi anticipates, which leads to wild complications and to Zohar taking center stage for a while.
As played by actress Ivgy, who won an Israel film academy award for Keren Yedaya’s “Or” a decade ago and another one for this role, Zohar comes into her own in a segment that involves both sexual uncertainty and demonic possession. Not an expected combination, perhaps, but doing this kind of film the way it’s always been done is not what “Zero Motivation” has in mind.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles