Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): * * *
The Human Resources Manager, released on DVD by the reliably interesting Film Movement catalog, won five major Israeli Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscars). Directed by Eran Riklis, Based on A.B. Yehoshua's book "A Woman in Jerusalem," the film is a worthy if occasionally sluggish follow-up to his previous feature, The Lemon Tree. The film starts off a bit slow, but stick with it; when the story leaves Israel it resonates.
The titular employee (Mark Ivanir) manages Jerusalem's largest bakery, and his life is on the skids. He hates his job, his wife's left him, and he struggles to maintain connection to his young daughter. Then a foreign-born female employee, Yulia (interestingly, the only character in the film who is given a name), is killed in a suicide bombing, and he has to help the company make amends after negative news coverage, as well as make up for the fact that he basically knew nothing of the woman at all. The manager's boss (Gila Almagor) orders him to do damage control, and he ends up accompanying the victim's body to her homeland. She claims to want to take on the burden of guilt in this case but instead hangs him out to dry.
The story moves from Israel (where it seems to rain more than it does in other Israeli films or in reality) to the unnamed Eastern European country where Yulia was from. There he discovers the woman's own family life was in even more disarray than his own.
The film portrays a country that has a familial way of responding to foreign deaths, whether through feelings of culpability or responsibility, but is also about the cruelty of bureaucracy in both places—and the way societies form small tribes that take care of their own, even if the national "tribe" fails in this department.
I wonder if Human Resources Manager really benefits from not naming the dead woman's country, where much of the film takes place. While it does effectively stand for many a Slavic country beset by poverty, so many of the nice travelogue details don't resonate as much as they would if we knew specifically where this was set.
While Riklis’ film is billed as a tragi-comedy, the humor here is pretty deadpan and dour. It satirizes Israeli bureaucracy and tradition but most of the comedy comes from the supporting characters: like the Israeli counsel woman in the deceased's home country (played by an actress who seems the Israeli equivalent of Patricia Clarkson) manages to be both reassuring and pushy ("For him, you and me, the entire Jewish nation killed this lady," she says); the reporter who tags along as almost a sort of noodge Greek chorus, a bit clichéd in his callousness but as the story unfolds becomes less so; a creepily cheerful morgue worker; and, critically, the deceased woman's estranged teenage son, a troubled teen who eventually opens up to the Israeli.
And in a way Human Resources Manager follows the template of an investigative thriller—though without much in the way of thrills—or of a mystery; another reviewer (John Hartl) interestingly wrote about a connection to the film noir Laura, in that the man here slowly develops an affection for the deceased woman the more he learns -- though there is no Laura-like ending here.
Riklis has a keen eye for detail, from factory workers making challah bread on an assembly line to office touches (pictures etc.) the older man who is a one man band who sadly plays his repetitive tune on a guitar in the background of a restaurant; an underground bunker turned living space has its own odd homey touches.
But key to the film working is lead actor Ivanir, who has been in American films Schindler's List and The Good Shepherd, who keeps from sentimentalizing his character and makes an at times coldhearted man likable; he's a bit sour-faced and downbeat, but human. Not all the characters come off so well: his ex-wife, since we're not really privvy to what has lead to her resentments (though it's implied that his work came in the way of their marriage), comes off as too shrill and unsympathetic given the tragic reason behind the man's journey.
Ultimately, while the story in The Human Resources Manager is rather simple, there are enough subtle but complex ideas and characters within that framework that it becomes captivating enough, even as it meanders.
In Hebrew with English subtitles; occasional dialogue in English.
As is typical with Film Movement, the DVD includes a short film: András Salamon's Tell the Children, based on a true story about a little girl who escapes the horrors of the Holocaust, and then as an elderly woman is confronted by a group of Neo Nazis. Though the subject matter is harrowing, the filmmaking is startling; the past scenes are filmed in an old Bolex-style black and white. The film feels rather abruptly short, however, and works better if you forget the "punchline" and just appreciate the feel of it. [Grade: B-.]
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