Zero Motivation (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4): Israeli female solders stuck in office job

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Through the droll observation on a bunch of female soldiers who have to cope with their drab, suffocating daily life at the base, Israeli comedy film “Zero Motivation” delights us with unexpected moments of amusement and laugh. I did not like the movie at first that because it was a bit disorienting as casually shifting itself around different modes in its loose episodic narrative, but then I found myself chuckling a lot, and I eventually came to enjoy more of how this witty, smart work accomplishes its missions.

During the opening scene, we meet two young Israeli female soldiers in the middle of their mandatory military service years. Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is usually cynical and sullen while having no particular hope about being transferred from their dull, joyless desk position in the personnel department, but Daffi (Nelly Tagar), who is a little chirpier compared to her glum friend/colleague, still hopes that she will be transferred to any urban base better than their current one in a remote desert area. In fact, she has been sending many letters for transfer request to her superiors, though she still has not received any answer from the above yet.

When Daffi and Zohar are returning to their base along with other soldiers after the end of their brief vacation, they happen to be accompanied by Tehila (Yonit Tobi, who looks convincingly unsure and mousy as demanded), and Daffi is excited as Tehila begins to work in the personnel department as its new lackey. It seems that Tehila is sent here as someone to replace Daffi, and Daffi is ready to teach Tehila how to shred useless personnel documents or how to handle coffee and snacks for routine officer meetings. While Daffi and her office colleagues are non-combatant soldiers technically, they are pretty much like office drones, and their service is always taken for granted by their superiors without any consideration or appreciation.

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In the meantime, the movie observes the daily ennui among soldiers in the base, and its wry absurd comedy is not that far from its predecessors including “MASH” (1970), “Catch-22” (1970), and “Jarhead” (2005). Although the movie is not so clear or specific about the situation outside the base, Israel seems to be going through another serious geopolitical conflict, but nothing much happens in the base in contrast as Zohar, Daffi, and their several colleagues go through their tedious work hours without much excitement or motivation. Unlike their fastidious direct superior Rama (Shani Klein), they do not care much about their boring paperwork, and they are instead far more interested in who will set a new record in the Minesweeper computer game. As they and other female soldiers are frequently around male soldiers in the base, casual sex comes handy for them if they want, and that surely puts off their boredom at least for a while.

And then a sad, unfortunate incident happens to the dismay of everyone in the base, and Daffi and Zohar gradually find themselves being distant from each other during its aftermath. While feeling more frustrated and desperate than ever due to her ever-decreasing hope for transfer, Daffi happens to discover that there is actually a good opportunity for fulfilling her long wish, and she immediately grasps it with no hesitation, though that means she is not going to be around her friend any more.

Zohar is naturally displeased about her friend’s decision, but then the movie changes its course as Zohar comes to be occupied with her small private mission. As being more aware that she has not had any sexual experience yet unlike many of her female colleagues, Zohar becomes determined to lose her virginity as soon as possible, and the movie draws a number of good laughs while developing this amusing circumstance through several surprising moments including one spooky possibility of spiritual possession.

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“Zero Motivation” is the first feature film by the director/writer Talya Lavie, who previously won the Panorama Audience Award for her 2006 short film “The Substitute” at the Berlin International Film Festival. That short film eventually became the starting point for her feature film, and you will not be surprised to learn that Lavie’s own experiences in the Israeli Defence Forces were the major inspiration for both films. Just like the main characters in “Zero Motivation”, she had to endure the tedium of paper-pushing work during her military service years, and you may get the glimpses of her real-life experiences through the small realistic details and sharp insights shown in the film. No matter how much silly and absurd the movie becomes, it is always grounded in considerable realism under Lavie’s competent direction, and some of its amusing moments indirectly point out those universal human problems within military organization, such as sexism among male superiors.

The characters in the film initially look broad, but they are well-defined figures who often surprise us with good comic/dramatic effects. Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar complement each other well through the contrasting personalities of their characters, and one of their best scenes comes from when the movie later places their characters in a changed circumstance. I will not go into details for your entertainment, but let’s say that the movie serves us with quite an uproarious moment incidentally featuring a pair of staple guns. In case of the supporting cast members in the film, Shani Klein is notable as a by-the-book officer who turns out to have her own frustration and disappointment as much as her soldiers, and Tamara Klingon is especially hilarious when her character alarms others with sudden strange behaviors.

I think its third act could spend a little more time on the buildup process preceding the eventual finale, but “Zero Motivation” is still an entertaining comedy on the whole, and Lavie definitely makes a lasting impression on the audiences through her confident filmmaking. It is always interesting to come across a new talent, and we may see more from her during the next following years.
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