Zero Motivation (Hebrew)

One of the ways for film festivals to earn prestige within the industry is to host the world premiere of an under-the-radar movie that turns out to be noteworthy, thus forever associating the festival with that film. Such programming coups imply two things: that the festival is good enough to attract top talent, and that its programmers are savvy enough to recognize it.

New York’s Tribeca Film Festival has struggled with this. The 12-year-old fest showcases a lot of terrific movies, but they tend to be titles that debuted elsewhere. Among true Tribeca premieres, only a few stand out in those dozen years — but that includes “Zero Motivation,” a bold Israeli comedy that won the jury prize at the 2014 festival and could be a promising sign for the festival’s future.

Written and directed by Talya Lavie, the film is about low-ranking female soldiers in the Israeli army, in particular Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who are stationed at some middle-of-nowhere military base, doing basic secretarial chores in an administrative office. The work is dull and undemanding; mostly they play Minesweeper on the computer and engage in petty bickering with their co-workers, all of whom are also bored and female. Think “Broad City” or “Girls” meets “M*A*S*H,” with a pinch of “Office Space” thrown in for good measure.

Upbeat Daffi longs to be transferred to the big city of Tel Aviv, and in fact convinces herself that the new girl in the office is intended to be her replacement. Zohar has gotten reckless and nihilistic, acting in a blatantly (and hilariously) insubordinate manner to their commanding officer, Rama (Shani Klein). For her part, Rama wants to advance in the ranks but has a hard time convincing her superiors she’s leadership material when her current charges are such screw-ups.

This might be the only film ever made to focus on the Israeli military without containing any gunfire or politics. Lavie’s tone is lighthearted and satirical, amused by the military’s absurdity but not angry about it. (Like most Israelis, she had to do a stint in the army herself.) The conflict with Palestine is referred to only obliquely: the characters we’re dealing with are far removed from that, bogged down in paperwork and bureaucracy, with only their barracks and uniforms to remind them that they’re actually soldiers. They express their frustration in crackling, snarky dialogue and through occasional acts of mischief and pranking.

But there are dark notes to the film, too, which Lavie deftly weaves into the larger, more absurd story. One of the office girls commits suicide (grim), after which another girl fears she is being haunted by the dead girl’s ghost (funny). Someone is eager to lose her virginity (funny), is sexually harassed by a male soldier (not funny), then gives the jerk an appropriately humiliating comeuppance (funny again). Gender politics are part of the fabric of the movie, but, as with the other kind of politics, they aren’t made into an agenda.

The lead actresses, Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar, do well with the film’s loose style and deadpan humor, and the entire ensemble of kooky supporting characters is full of energy. It’s rare these days to see a genuinely funny comedy about the military, let alone one about the Israeli Defense Forces (not generally known as a humorous organization), so let’s hope “Zero Motivation” finds an audience in its homeland and here in the West. Building on the promise of her acclaimed short films, Talya Lavie’s feature debut suggests she’s a talented new voice, not to mention an astute observer of women, red tape, human nature, and staple guns.

B (1 hr., 41 min.; in Hebrew with subtitles; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, some frank nudity, some sexuality.)

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