In this Israeli film, a teacher discovers a five-year-old poetry genius in her class and becomes increasingly obsessed with nurturing, protecting and owning his talent
The Kindergarten Teacher
Starring: Sarit Larry, Avi Schnaidman
Directed by: Nadav Lapid
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 119 minutes
(In Hebrew with English subtitles)
By Jay Stone
The Israeli film The Kindergarten Teacher is a disturbing fable about a woman who becomes obsessed with a genius in her class. The woman is Nira (Sarit Larry), a slim and attractive middle-aged teacher who has, somewhere in her grey eyes, a dark focus that can twist her features into something desperate. The genius is Yoav (Avi Schnaidman), a sweet-faced little boy with a little boy’s grave silences and purposeful way of wandering off to do nothing of consequence.
Occasionally, though, Yoav will begin to pace back and forth and say, “I have a poem.” Then he will come forward with something like this: “Hagar is beautiful enough / enough for me / enough for me / Rain of gold falls upon her house / It is truly the sun of God.”
Yoav is five years old.
He is a pint-sized genius, a Mozart of verse, but only Nira seems to know it. Yoav’s uncle, a writer who taught him to love words, is trapped in a dying profession, an editor at a collapsing newspaper. His father is a businessman who has no time for such nonsense. His nanny, Miri (Ester Rada) is an aspiring actress who steals Yoav’s poems to read at her own auditions because they impress people. Otherwise, she thinks the little boy is just a weird, troublesome kid.
Nira, though, idolizes him, even though she steals Yoav’s poems as well. She takes a poetry-writing class, and claims authorship of the small masterpieces that occasionally visit Yoav in some magical way — he can’t be talked into writing a poem, it has to strike him, like lightning. She is also the only one who seems to appreciate his value, and to see the dangers of his gift. “He’s a poet in an era that hates poets,” she warns.
Her infatuation, which begins so tenderly, soon becomes odd. Writer-director Nadav Lapid (The Policeman) has put a dangerous tilt into The Kindergarten Teacher: people who bump into the wandering camera, or who stare directly into the lens, as if challenging us. It’s reminiscent of what German provocateur Michael Haneke did in the frightening Funny Games, a breakdown of the wall between us and the increasingly fractured psychology on the screen. There is no violence in the film, but there are psychosexual undercurrents: Nira makes love with her dutiful husband in one scene, then gives Yoav a bath in the next. She leaves a party for her grown son, who is celebrating his advancement in the Israeli military, to step outside and call Yoav on her call phone, as if he was a lover with whom she shares a secret affair.
In some way, she does. The Kindergarten Teacher is diffuse, dreamlike and often languorous — it seems 20 minutes too long — but it also dares to take poetry seriously, as something worth ruining your life for. Much of its baffling power comes from the performances: not just Larry’s slow, clinical collapse but also the almost haunted screen presence of young Avi Schnaidman, a small, round-faced bundle of charisma.
The Kindergarten Teacher is more than a portrait of the artist as a young man. It’s almost a horror story about the mysteries of art itself. In the end it feels like it misses its point, but there’s an undeniable power here, and it stays with you long after the unsettling final scenes.
– 30 –