Sharon Bar-Ziv’s debut feature, shot over the course of five days after an intense period of rehearsals, strives for a handheld immediacy and raw emotional power that it only intermittently achieves. More than anything else, Room 514 plays like a stripped-down, if not downright impoverished, version of A Few Good Men, in which an army newcomer’s zeal is pitted against the unwritten, near-atavistic code of old timers and their ruthlessly programmed minions.
When Anna (Asia Neifeld), a Russian-born Israeli soldier serving as an MP, starts to interrogate members of an elite “Samaria Wolves” battalion about an alleged incident of excessive anti-Palestinian violence, she opens a can of worms quite impossible to handle. A young woman standing up to her supposed peers, she has to deal with a torrent of verbal abuse, ranging from sexist remarks (“You cunt”) to political allegations (“You leftie”) to ethnic slurs (“You little Russian”). Her dignity undermined but her resolve undaunted, Anna grows steadier in her sense of purpose after one of the soldiers decides to cooperate. But then things take a unexpectedly tragic turn.
The eponymous room, which comes close to being the movie’s only location, serves both as the interrogation locale and as a nest of passionate, if rushed, trysts between Anna and her fellow soldier Ezer, cheating on his fiancé and proving to be a pathetic wimp to Anna’s stick-in-the-mud class act. The film is an almost wall-to-wall talk-talk affair, shot in long, persistent close-ups that often eschew the conventional sense of editing rhythm; minutes on end can pass without Bar-Ziv granting a reaction shot to what’s being said by one character to another.
Defined by its maker during a post-screening Q&A as “a right-wing movie with a left-wing message,” Room 514 seems appropriately conflicted when it comes to its you-can’t-handle-the-truth politics. On one hand, the film seems enamored of the starched tough-army mystique; on the other, it’s clearly longing for some unattainable ideal of holding all authority fully accountable for everything it does. By the end of the story, Anna is both triumphant and severely admonished for being so, and since Bar-Ziv opts for a facile plot game-changer that has all characteristics of a cop-out, it’s difficult to discern what exactly the movie is saying about the abuses of power within the Israeli army, or anywhere else for that matter.
By the director’s own admission, Room 514 is supposed to serve as a “microcosm of Israeli society” (a puzzling statement for a movie sporting mere five speaking parts), but it’s ultimately too facile for that. As tentative in its politics as it is overwrought in its total reliance on overheated mega-close-ups, Room 514 doesn’t even approach the fierce intelligence and incisiveness of Nadav Lapid’s recent Policeman, which managed to deconstruct various ideologies shaping its characters’ lives, without confining its strategy to one-on-one ping-pong shouting matches. As it stands, Bar-Ziv’s first effort resembles a courtroom drama reduced to the size of an episode of In Treatment, except the HBO series has usually a much wider psychological scope and includes vastly superior acting.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.