Avi Shnaidman, left, and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher (Kino Lorber)

Avi Shnaidman, left, and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher (Kino Lorber)

Written and Directed by Nadav Lapid
Produced by Carole Scotta, Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler
Released by Kino Lorber
Hebrew with English subtitles
Israel. 119 min. Not Rated
With Sarit Larry, Avi Shnaidman, Lior Raz, Ester Rada, Guy Oren, Yehezkel Lazarov, and Dan Toren

The Kindergarten Teacher poses fascinating and unsettling questions about the arts in modern society, in general and in contemporary Israel specifically.

The titular teacher, Nira (Sarit Larry), is already turning away from sharing her husband’s (Lior Raz) enjoyment of a banal TV talk show in the opening scene. She has been trying to write a poem for her new writing workshop, and she interrupts his relaxation to read him a blank verse about a girl, beginning with the line “Hagar is beautiful enough.” She immediately reveals that she’s not the author, and goes on to describe the scene when one of her five-year-olds, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), recites a poem as he creates it: his nanny Miri (Ester Rada) comes to pick him up at school, but instead of leaving he starts pacing back and forth in the playground and announces, “I have a poem.” Miri grabs a pencil and notebook, and he dictates the poem to her.

At first, this could be the literary equivalent of Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That (2007), but remarkably, this was exactly what director Nadav Lapid and his babysitter did together when he was at that age, and that poem was his first. He left it in a box for almost 30 years, along with the others recited in the film, until he imagined the impact his preternatural words could have had.

Back at Nira’s home that night, she struggles to explain how remarkable the little boy’s intensity is to her husband, who just shrugs it off. The next day, Nira closely watches Yoav play, mostly by himself, with the camera moving back and forth like a security camera. That evening, Nira passes off Yoav’s poem as her own in her poetry class. Everyone has a different reaction: “Cold,” “Warm,” “Too much beauty and passion.” The teacher finds the poem an erotic invitation for a threesome with Nira and the unknown Hagar. (It’s reminiscent of the reactions to Chauncey Gardner’s pronouncements in Hal Ashby’s Being There.) Nira’s not the only one appropriating the boy’s verse. Miri, the beautiful young nanny and an aspiring actress, uses Yoav’s poems as audition monologues to stand out from her competition, and even sings one (right to the camera).

When the nanny arrives to pick up Yoav, Nira peppers her with questions about his parents and the poems. Miri thinks he got the idea from his uncle, a writer who used to read poems to him. Usually so warm and affectionate, the teacher practically assaults the boy with questions about his inspirations and outlook that he mostly can’t answer. Then she tries to commands him to be creative (including pinching and twisting his arm), but he has no reaction and no change in his blank expression.

There are already other influences on and around him, of the macho kind that Lapid memorably eviscerated in his first film, Policeman (2011). The alpha boy in class attaches himself to Yoav, and, bragging that his father is a soccer player, teaches him the loud doggerel of a vulgar soccer team cheer. At school, Hanukkah means time for the class to chant “Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell)” as an aggressive tribute to the militant Maccabees, and Yoav wields a sword for the school play.

Nira knows she’s out of her depth in trying to help a child she thinks is a literary prodigy comparable to Mozart, who had the benefit of being encouraged by music teachers. (All she knows is that the composer’s instructors rewarded him with candy, but her plying Yoav with sweets has no effect on his output.) Expecting sympathy, she seeks out Yoav’s uncle the writer, and passionately makes her case that his nephew needs guidance, but he’s an apathetic burn-out (perhaps a dig at the country’s literati). So she tracks down the father, who has custody after a messy divorce, at one of the fancy restaurants he owns. An entrepreneur, he barely makes time for her and dismisses her plea, by countering that he wants his son to have a normal life. Representing capitalist forces, his only action is against the nanny for “stealing” the poems—and immediately he fires her.

Nira jumps at the opportunity to spend more time with Yoav, and makes herself so available as a new transcriber that she encourages him to call her at night, willingly interrupting sex with her husband for his recitations. As the film shifts to her extreme obsession over a child artist, it becomes unpredictably riveting as the devoted acolyte becomes convinced that only she can be the artistic savior for this possible prodigy. In an increasingly surreal situation, she brings in the work of other poets to try to educate him (there are references to several Israelis whose significance will go by American audiences). Pouring out her heart to him, she tells him how poetry helps her deal with her frustrations, such as from being Mediterranean Sephardic in a culture dominated by European Ashkenazis. (Lapid does seem to throw in the kitchen sink of Israeli cultural issues.) Even as she takes him through the beautifully filmed, wide-angled environments from the city to the desert, Yoav is more interested in eating ice cream. But he still unexpectedly spouts poems.

Every audience member will doubtless have a different interpretation: you may be perplexed or shocked if you take the film literally; thoughtful, if you consider it as social criticism; or get carried away to consider it a broader allegory. Regardless, you won’t forget The Kindergarten Teacher.