Reviewed at the 2010 AFI Fest.
Something tells me Eran Riklis would take it as a compliment to call his a career full of minor works. While many Israeli filmmakers have concentrated on making the big statement about their fractured cultural landscape of their homeland, Riklis has focused on making the small one in recent years, whether it’s the legal battle over a lemon grove between a Palestinian woman and the Israeli defense minister in his last drama “Lemon Tree” or the uneasy union of Syrian and Israeli families in his 2004 breakthrough “The Syrian Bride.”
As Riklis said in his introduction to the AFI Fest crowd over the weekend, his latest film, “The Human Resources Manager” is “similar, but different” – a nod to the fact that while the titular character travels thousands of miles from Jerusalem to an unnamed Eastern European country to return the corpse of one of his former employees to the village she grew up in, it is a film that ends with barely a ripple of significant change in the larger scheme of things, but amounts to a massive sea change for its characters.
Ironically, if “The Human Resources Manager” is more pronounced in its intentions, it’s because so much in the film is left unidentified by name. Other than Yulia, the victim of a terrorist bombing, most of the other characters in the film are acknowledged only by position, if at all. When a local journalist (Guri Alfi) causes a sensation with a story of how Yulia’s body has laid in the morgue for over a week, it becomes the responsibility of her employer, a corporate bakery and, by extension, its HR manager (Mark Ivanir) to find her closest relative to claim her corpse – and naturally, he never had heard her name before.
Within days, the HR manager, the journalist and the woman’s teenage son are traveling to the snowy terrain of Eastern Europe (marked only by Romanian dialogue) in order to get the body back to her mother. For the HR manager, the cultural differences are a mild inconvenience. But as in “Lemon Tree,” it is how the institutionalized indifference of bureaucracy has replaced the way people relate to each other on a human level that is the true villain.
In adapting the novel by A.B. Yehoshua, Riklis is given to a more strident narrative than the films he’s penned from scratch; here, he doesn’t have a writing credit at all, working from a script by Noah Stollman. Yet although the grace notes are less delicate as the HR manager dutifully goes through all the traditional motions of finding his own humanity in a two-hour film, they reverberate nearly as much with Riklis’ uncommonly generous touch.
As it happens, fellow AFI selection “Two Gates of Sleep” is also about the journey of a coffin to its final resting spot, but in a different part of the world where political concerns are limited to the bickering between two brothers over the right way to bury their dead mother. Set apart from any semblance of urban encroachment, save for the lumber mill where the two brothers make a meager wage, Jack (Brady Corbet) and Louis (David Call) reside on the fringe of the Mississippi-Louisiana border where the flicker of their weak television reception just about sums up the pulse of life before their ailing mom (Karen Young) ultimately flatlines and they settle upon hauling her coffin across the river with only their hands.
First-time director Alistair Banks Griffin was originally a painter, which is evident immediately from the fact that “Two Gates of Sleep” is told in brush strokes – individual scenes of the brothers hunting deer or their confused mother as she wanders away from home are awash in the colors of the sky and the indigenous flora and bristle with raw emotion. However, as Griffin acknowledged during the post-screening Q & A, he gave up painting because he was frustrated by his own limitations and while the cinema offers him a greater canvas, “Two Gates of Sleep” shows he will need more time to understand the demands of a story since the film works far more effectively on a scene-by-scene basis than as a whole. Griffin explained that he purposefully left scenes out that detailed the growing animosity between the brothers, but when their relationship comes to a head, it is a bewildering turn of events.
It isn’t surprising that calls of pretension have dogged the film since debuting at Cannes, a reputation that wasn’t helped at AFI when Griffin announced before the screening it would be the Cannes print of the English-language film being presented with French subtitles. (“But then there’s not that much dialogue,” demurred Griffin.) However, there’s much more to admire about “Two Gates of Sleep” than there isn’t.
The film boasts typically gorgeous cinematography from “Tiny Furniture” and “Afterschool” lenser Jody Lee Lipes, whose visual signature is so strong and vibrant it’s beginning to make me wonder about how wunderkind writer/directors Lena Dunham and Antonio Campos might be considered without him. (Coincidentally or not, Campos is an executive producer here.) And Griffin actually co-edited the film with star Corbet, which likely is at least partially responsible for giving the “Funny Games” actor the full command of the screen and he is compelling to watch, even when the story being told isn’t.
Although films like “Ballast” and “Winter’s Bone” have trudged through similar terrain, the desolate enclaves of rural America that unfortunately enter the consciousness of moviegoers about as often as they have the metropolitan community at large, there is still something unique about Griffin’s attempt at capturing a feeling of isolation and saying something about the grip of tradition that drives the brothers to such extremes. The images in “Two Gates of Sleep” are crisp. Now if only Griffin could bring the same clarity to his storytelling…