Knowing nothing about it, I pulled 2010’s “The Human Resources Manager” off the movie shelf at the local library and gave it a spin – I’ll watch any Israeli movie. Director Eran Riklis had impressed me with “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride,” so I was eager to view this one.
Riklis teased and gripped me with the visual and character set-up in the movie’s first part. I thought I had landed in a film noir thriller from the early 1950s transported to the terror-stricken streets of 2002 Jerusalem. An unnamed man with bleary eyes and three-day stubble finds himself unraveling the mystery of a beautiful corpse. As the minutes tick by, he must deal with a tough boss, a colleague with secrets, a reporter on his tail, an impatient ex-wife, wary kids and his own troubled past. Played by Ukrainian immigrant Mark Ivanir, the man stalks the back alleys of Jerusalem to find answers. Ivanir exactly captured the tone of a world-weary idealist who’s roughed up by the world but keeps coming back for more. I saw him as an Israeli version of Jack Nicholson’s J.J. “Jake Gittis” in Chinatown. I half-hoped a character would tell him, “Forget it, Yaacov, it’s Jerusalem.”
But . . . far from being a pistol-packing shamus, the man is the HR manager of a major Jerusalem bakery. His business is bread, not bullets. Still, he digs out the details about the corpse, a former employee killed in a terrorist bombing. The victim, Yulia (the only character with a name), is a foreign worker from Romania, and the actions shifts to that country for the rest of the movie. I still liked it, as the plot diverged from what I imagined it could be to become a road movie across a battered but resilient post-Soviet landscape. Being a film noir fan, I had hoped the movie would return to the dark underbelly of Jerusalem, but that wasn’t the vision of Riklis.
Riklis has said he made the film as a break from the politically charged Lemon Tree. Even so, it reflected his interest in “displaced people,” and that theme links The Human Resources Manager to Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride. All concern the fractious interactions of Israeli Jews with other groups – Palestinians in a land dispute (Lemon Tree), and a Druze wedding on the Israel-Syrian border (The Syrian Bride). Together, all the movies show culture in collision or, in The Human Resources Manager, sometimes baffled interactions. The newest movie lacks the tense narrative arcs of the two earlier films, but it’s well worth seeing.
Speaking of worth seeing, the Romanian aspect of The Human Resources Manager reminded me of a special film experience I had last fall at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. On a lark, I saw a three-plus hour program of Romanian short films as part of the series “Tales From the New Golden Age: New Romanian Cinema.” They had a unique visual and story-telling style, some about the absurdities of life warped by a dictatorship, others about family life. I can’t find the titles, but my guess is that any Romanian films will show the same startling characteristics. Catch them if you can.