Israeli film takes darkly-comic road to finding one’s own humanity

Sylwia Drori and Mark Ivanir in ‘The Human Resources Manager.’ Photo courtesy of Film Movement


The excellent Israeli film “The Human Resources Manager” is a tragicomic that tales a stressed-out human resources manager forced to deal with a public relations mess on an unexpected journey, physically and philosophically.

Dark humor and irony suffuse this tale of one man finding his humanity while wrestling with bureaucratic red tape. “The Human Resources Manager” won five Israeli Academy Awards and played at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival.

Director Eran Riklis, whose films include “Lemon Tree” and “Syrian Bride,” takes us on this trip from the ordinary to the contemplative, seeking a final resting place for a dead woman and asking if where really matters. It is a cross-cultural, very human tale told in a darkly comic, moving and surprising way.

The story begins simply enough, with what seems to be an extra task dumped on the human resources manager (Mark Ivanir) at a large baking company as he tries to leave the office to hurry home to his daughter. An embarrassing newspaper article about the company is set to hit the streets in the morning. The boss (Gila Almagor) wants answers to what happened and a written response to the situation before the paper comes out in the morning.

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A paycheck from the baking company was found on the body of a woman killed in a suicide bombing a few days earlier. The body has been unclaimed in the morgue but the paycheck implies she was an employee. The newspaper is accusing the big international bakery of inhuman indifference for letting the body of an employee lay neglected.

Who she was and even whether she really was an employee have to be determined. The task seems straightforward but new wrinkles and complications keep arising. The human resources manager discovers she was an ex-employee named Julia, a low-wage immigrant, an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Romania living alone in Jerusalem. But answering one question and dealing with one problem just seems to lead him further down a rabbit hole. Meanwhile, the human resources manager has trouble at home, and is hoping to patch things up with his pre-teen daughter (Roni Koren) by promising to help chaperone a school trip.

Curiously only the dead woman has a name in this story, something that does not really dawn on the viewer until later in the film.

Ivanir’s superb, restrained but affecting acting carries this film. He takes us through a complex range of emotions without sentimentalizing. The ever-expanding problem of what becomes of the body takes him ever farther afield, not just physically, and brings him in contact with a diverse cast of characters, including the dead woman’s troubled teen son (Noah Silver).

The further he goes in unraveling this knot, the stranger and more absurd things become. Yet every step also brings a kind of expanding horizon to the story, like emerging from a tunnel of a constricted life into something more open.

The film is packed with delicious commentary on modern business realities, where a corporate spokesperson’s expressions of human concern are more about PR efforts to burnish public image than genuine human feeling. Quirky, absurd comedy is everywhere, with standout contributions from Rozina Cambos, as the Israeli consul to this chilly country, Julian Negulesco as her Romanian husband and vice counsel, and especially from Guri Alfi’s pesky reporter.

The film’s images set the mood. Cramped but familiar interiors of the factory, its offices and the human resources manager’s apartment dominate at first. As we go in search of the dead woman’s identity, the camera wanders into Jerusalem gardens beneath roofs of Russian Orthodox churches, down winding streets deep in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Images become increasingly exotic, until we are traveling through a strange, snowy land of post-Soviet scenery.

By its end, “The Human Resources Manager” achieves a certain human warmth with an absurdist twist.

‘The Human Resources Manager’

Rated: Not Rated

Running time: 1:43

Opens: Friday at Plaza Frontenac, in Hebrew, English and Romanian, with English subtitles.