[30 April 2014]
Today’s military experience is frequently characterized by great swathes of tedium leavened with bureaucracy and peevishness. That experience is at the center of the sweetly sour Israeli comedy Zero Motivation, which won Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Here, it isn’t war that’s the killer, it’s boredom.
On a base that feels as removed from any actual war as Sgt. Bilko, the human resources office is a den of sloth and ineptitude. Commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein) is frazzled trying to get any of the women in her command to care even remotely about their assignments. Her best friends Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) can’t be bothered to do much besides complain and play Minesweeper, as they all survive in a casually sexist division, where the men are assigned all the combat roles and so ascend to higher ranks, and female soldiers fetch coffee and bicker.
Sullen whiner Daffi is so resistant to doing anything of value that she’s been designated “Paper Shredding NCO;” a position at which she fails miserably. All she cares about is transferring to cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which holds an exalted a position in her mind. The kibbutz-raised Zohar doesn’t understand Daffi’s desire, and finds her own distractions, channeling her energy into desperately trying to lose her virginity. They kill more time with an epic staple-gunfight and general slackness. In other words, these are barely soldiers you would trust to carry live ammunition, much less defend a nation’s borders.
Over the course of three interrelated chapters that all end up being about escape, writer and director Talya Lavie skillfully unpacks the waste and drudgery of military life into a comic narrative that’s also shot through with an unnerving and free-floating anxiety. In one chapter, a distraught woman carves her beloved’s name into her body, while in another a ghost haunts one of the barracks beds. But as much as Lavie mines an acid-etched vein of downbeat nihilism, she also fills Zero Motivation with an engaging confusion of hothouse melodramas, jealousies, and disappointments. These ripple through the film, reminding us that these would-be soldiers aren’t so far removed from the teenagers they once were.
Alonso Ruizpalacios’s loose-limbed comedy Güeros, which won the Cinematography Award at the Festival, also gets a lot of traction from its mainly directionless young protagonists. They wander through Mexico City through a couple formless days backgrounded by worries about the future and uncertainty about their place and purpose in the present. It’s a film riddled and with questions and switchbacks, circling in on itself time and again.
Güeros starts in confusion and never quite lets viewers in on what’s truly happening, even as the story’s contours become visible. After running-wild teenager Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre) is caught dropping a water balloon off a building onto a baby, his mother sends him to Mexico City to stay with his university student older brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta). An agitated, moody thinker who keeps grousing about his thesis but never works on it, Sombra lives in a bleak high-rise apartment with his mellower friend and roommate Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). It’s an uncomfortable space: Sombra’s manic mental state is manifest in both his chatter and in the camera’s jabbing in close; it leads to him retaliate against Tomas’ presence in the time-honored violent manner of older brothers everywhere.
Cabin fever leads to bad decision-making (the boys steal electricity from the downstairs apartment), resulting in a hasty exit in a rattletrap car and a search for an ailing folk singer whose music is the only connection Sombra and Tomas have to their late father. Venturing into the university that’s been shuttered by a strike for weeks, they add to their party Ana (Ilse Salas), a graduate student who seems the only one of the four with any direction. With her in the mix, the film broadens the scope of its journeys, running from slinky steadicam trawls through the protestor-clogged university hallways to a pretentious film party and then a chaotic street march that swallows the characters whole.
Once Ruizpalacios gets to these perambulations, the film opens its wings. Before then, its style is mannered, featuring more spaciously artful framings that, along with the gorgeous, deep-focus black-and-white camerawork, hint at French New Wave posing. Once the four protagonists are out in the city, Güeros becomes grander, barreling through one darkened neighborhood after another. The kids ask more than once, “Where are we?” And “Mexico City” is the answer every time.
Even with its striking compositions and embrace of visual disorder, Güeros gets hung up on its own cleverness. The longer it ambles on, the more it takes on the feel of a string of short films mashed together. A midpoint breaching of the fourth wall (we see a clapper, and one actor talks out of character regarding his opinions on the screenplay so far) doesn’t serve much purpose. Neither does Sombra’s declamation on the state of Mexican film: “They grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black and white and think they’re making art movies.” Enough moments like that, and the film begins to take on an unfortunate tone of self-satisfaction. There’s beauty here, though, that portends greater things in Ruizpalacios’s future.