Internationally recognized Israeli director Eran Riklis’s latest, “The Human Resources Manager,” is a movie with a willfully split personality.
It begins crisply and wittily in one country, and genre, before swapping both for a vastly different continent, tone and theme.
Along the way, the 2002-set film morphs from a pointed commentary on Israel’s exploitation of, and indifference toward, its low-paid foreign workers into an intimate and borderline sentimental tale of the irreplaceable bonds of family.
Adapted from a novel by A.B. Yehoshua, “The Human Resources Manager” does a creditable job of circumventing an array of movie clichés in its guises as a sharp-tongued, big-city mystery and an absurdist Eastern European road movie. But the creativity and energy expended in avoiding the predictable distracts us from the movie’s core concerns.
“The Human Resources Manager” won the Ophir Award for Best Picture, thus qualifying as Israel’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar this year. The film screens March 31 in the Hartford Jewish Film Festival.
The imperious owner (Gila Almagor) of an industrial-size Jerusalem bakery charges her morose human resources manager—the movie grants him a title but not a name—with uncovering why a company pay stub was found on the unidentified female victim of a suicide bombing.
The woman had been languishing in the city morgue, only to be opportunistically exploited by a tabloid reporter for a front-page story smearing the bakery’s callous indifference.
The human resources manager quickly discovers that Yulia was Romanian, worked as a low-paid cleaner on the night shift and has no family or close friends in Israel. Although vaguely intrigued by this hiccup in his downbeat routine—it takes him to such exotic locales as the bakery floor, the morgue and the Orthodox neighborhood where Yulia rented a room—our unshaven hero is preoccupied by his separation from his wife and his shaky relationship with his adoles
But his efforts in that arena are thwarted for the moment when his boss assigns him to accompany Yulia’s body to Romania. It’s a shameless public relations move, confirmed by the reporter’s presence, and the bakery functionary responds in kind by cynically bribing everyone in sight to facilitate transporting the body and locating Yulia’s family.
Even in unfamiliar climes, our man shows his true talent as a logistics pro, an operator, a fixer. To this point, “The Human Resources Manager” is a sharp, smart send-up of Israeli-style pragmatism. You know the attitude: Life’s too short to waste time on respect and other luxuries.
In another time and place, one could envision a world-weary Robert Mitchum in the role. Mark Ivanir is OK, but he doesn’t evoke the timeless aura of a bruised man accepting his fate with style. It doesn’t help that he speaks his lines in English in a low growl, like a gumshoe in a contemporary film noir.
Curiously, once in Romania, Riklis (whose recent successes include “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride”) generally eschews Jewish-Catholic culture clashes and any allusions to Romanian anti-Semitism (unless one reads some symbolism into a lingering shot of a cemetery). The film becomes a record of the human resources manager’s journey toward reclaiming his compassion and humanity, which is to say his heart and soul.
And so the PR stunt evolves into an authentic act of accepting responsibility, one that does not entail “reparations.”
Given that we have little doubt at any point that the bakery man will achieve a personal turnaround on this trip, it is a measure of Riklis’ skill that the redemption manages to be believable and touching.
It turns out that the human resources manager is a people person, after all.
“The Human Resources manager” will be screened at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m. at the Criterion Cinema in Blue Back Square in West Hartford. For information visit the Festival website at www.hjff.org or call (860) 231-6316, or (860) 236-4571.