by Matt Levine
Antiwar movies tell us that war is hell, but many of them—including some of the best, like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and M*A*S*H (1972)—also emphasize that war is completely ridiculous. Running widespread bloodshed like it’s a bureaucratic business; what could be more asinine than that? With Zero Motivation, we can add Talya Lavie to the company of Kubrick and Altman, at least in the cursory sense that they respond to the machinery of war not through somber platitudes but through dark, acerbic comedy. Making her feature-film debut (she’s already written and directed three short films), Lavie’s winking absurdist tone often resembles Parks and Recreation more than M*A*S*H; in fact, her droll cynicism might have been off-putting if it wasn’t directed at an institution usually approached with obligatory tact (e.g., the Israeli army). That might make Zero Motivation more of a workplace comedy than a potent antiwar film, but as such it’s highly entertaining and amiably performed.
Director: Talya Lavie
Producers: Guy Jacoel, Yochanan Kredo, Yossi Uzrad
Writer: Talya Lavie
Cinematographer: Yaron Scharf
Editor: Arik Leibovitch
Music: Ran Bagno
Cast: Dana Ivgy, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Heli Twito, Meytal Gal, Tamara Klingon, Yonit Tobi
Premiere: April 17, 2014 – Tribeca Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 3, 2014
US Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
We first meet two of our protagonists on a bus headed for a remote military outpost: petulant Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and wide-eyed Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are best friends, sharing a pair of headphones on the way to their newest stint in a mundane administrative office. The bus breaks down en route, forcing them to walk the rest of the way; much griping ensues. Daffi so desperately wants to be transferred to Tel Aviv that she assumes the new recruit, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), has been assigned to replace her, though apparently Daffi’s requests for a new assignment have fallen on deaf ears (if they were ever even sent in the first place).
When the busload of soldiers, male and female, finally makes it to the drab military compound (surrounded by a seemingly endless desert), we meet the rest of Daffi and Zohar’s colleagues. Irena (Tamara Klingon) is a vulgar Russian expat who encourages Zohar to lose her virginity as soon as possible (which proves a surprisingly difficult task in a milieu filled with male soldiers); the inseparable Liat (Meytal Gal) and Livnat (Heli Twito) always work in tandem, usually while belting out the newest pop tunes. The office’s supervisor, Rama (Shani Klein), is a hard-working, ambitious overseer with plans to move up the military ranks; her severity is initially the butt of the movie's ridicule, but eventually Rama will become one of the most likable characters.
Admittedly, none of these individuals are granted much in the way of backstory or characterization. Most of them have broad, easily recognizable traits, and much of Zero Motivation’s plot hinges on their too-many-cooks incompatibility. Even so, the cast is tremendously charismatic—Tagar and Klein fare best as Daffi and Rama respectively, mostly because their characters are granted at least a few shades of gray—and it’s clear that the movie’s priority lies in offering sharp-witted comedy rather than plumbing its ensemble’s psyches.
The story itself is a parade of vignettes without an overarching plot to provide a narrative backbone—again, not unlike M*A*S*H, though Lavie doesn’t quite have the directorial dexterity to string it all together as cohesively as Altman. Zero Motivation’s three distinct “acts” are even demarcated to the audience by onscreen titles. The first segment, “The Replacement,” concerns the relationship between Daffi and her presumed successor, Tehlia, though their friendship is cut short when Tehlia unexpectedly commits suicide. The second chapter, entitled “The Virgin,” follows Zohar’s attempts to lose her virginity, enlisting a soldier who initially seems sweet-natured—though he quickly and disturbingly reveals his true nature when he tries to rape her. Finally, “The Commander” portrays Daffi’s return to the base from Tel Aviv, where she’s been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. The plotlines remain compelling despite the fact that they’re barely interlinked; Lavie could have structured her film a bit more carefully instead of compiling a series of subplots in succession, though the witty dialogue and easygoing performances ensure that the film doesn’t come untethered.
As these synopses suggest, Zero Motivation has a dark and bitter undercurrent to it, which aggressively resurfaces from time to time as if to remind us of the setting’s volatility. Lavie has little interest in delivering a message and never adopts a badgering tone, but a pointed criticism of the male soldiers and their sense of entitlement is obvious nonetheless. Early on, Zohar ridicules the military brass (or “dickholes,” as she calls them) for expecting the women to promptly serve the men’s coffee every morning; more unsettlingly, Zohar’s rape is only interrupted when Irena points a machine gun at the naked soldier, forcing him to have sex with a garbage can. This isn’t the only time when serious subject matter becomes fodder for deranged dark comedy; the funniest sequence relies on the fact that Irena is possessed by the ghost of Tehlia, making every laugh feel uncomfortable. At least Lavie’s evocation of this absurd stratocracy, defined more by stasis and boredom than military action, is vivid (and funny) enough to balance these light and dark tones.
That’s about the extent of Zero Motivation’s social commentary, though; the state of the Israeli army and its military endeavors remain entirely unmentioned. It’s less accurate to call the film an antiwar comedy than an absurd coming-of-age satire, which tellingly reaches its climax in an epic office brawl involving staple-gun shootouts. But even if Lavie’s film avoids the political implications of its setting, it provides a refreshingly blunt portrayal of the inner workings of state bureaucracy, not to mention the tyranny it has over individuals’ lives. There might not be much stylistic or thematic complexity in Zero Motivation, but what it does achieve is almost as impressive: what begins as a likeably punkish takedown of a state apparatus becomes, in its unexpected final scenes, the bittersweet passage of two previously apathetic young women into adulthood.