Film Movement are launching a new niche club focusing on the bi-monthly release of Jewish-themed films, it isn't a surprise to find The Human Resources Manager, an Israeli production, sent out to subscriber mailboxes as the May "Film of the Month." As a pale U.S. Caucasian who considers his story and heritage an extension of the Old Testament, the news that a New York company is interested in getting undistributed but deserving Jewish films to the public leaves a wonderful ring in my ears -- but the global film lover in me worries that the company's new focus will disrupt a wealth of quality films they already deliver from around the globe.
The Human Resources Manager mostly bypasses my worry, being an Israeli film with very Jewish-sounding background music taking place mostly in Romania, and having the feel of one of the better films of the Romanian new wave. From that movement, The Human Resources Manager reminded me of two films in particular: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, for its absurdist portrayal of social care (in that film it was health care), and The Other Irene, with its very similar subject matter about a deceased woman transported mysteriously from another country in her coffin. Whereas in The Other Irene the mystery was about what happened to the woman before she was put in the coffin, in The Human Resources Manager it's a more practical mystery: what to do with the coffin the body is in.
The story begins with an unnamed Human Resources Manager receiving bad press in Jerusalem when the city paper finds a worker dead from a suicide bombing and no one from the company has noticed her missing. HR guy's boss, unimpressed with his work (she claims he's not even there when he's there), sends him away to arrange for her burial in Romania in a publicity stunt to make the company look more compassionate. The journalist who broke the story, referred to as "The Weasel," tags along for the trip snapping pictures at all the wrong moments, attacked a few times for his indecency. Needless to say, HR guy can't stand the journalist's presence, he's a constant reminder of the fraudulent face of the company, but he can't get rid of him either -- the weasel's pics will show the care of the company.
While aiming to help the grieving family in Romania, HR guy is disappointing his own family back back home in Israel. They expected him home for family reasons, but once again he is missing due to work. He carries a tension that hangs between doing the right thing for himself or for the face of his company, as well as knowing that his absence is helping another family more than his own.
The only person named in the film is the Romanian deceased worker, Yulia, who at this point, as one Romanian official points out when the troupe is arrested carrying her body to her burial place, could probably care less where or how she is buried. Everyone else in the story has an opinion and does care, including Yulia's mom, who they travel a journey of several days taking the body to. All the conflicting opinions about Yulia's final resting place suggests that each of us has different ideas about death and the importance of a proper burial. Likewise, we have different motives and interests in following the dead to their place of rest.
The film is about a dead person, certainly. But it's more about our reaction to death than it is about death itself.
The biggest problem with THRM is that it climaxes about an hour in and never really goes anywhere from there. Yes, there will be another irony at the very end, and I think it's worth watching for that. But it's a shame the film couldn't sustain the same tempo from which it began. It goes from a highly engaging film of mixed motives to a bit of a bore in the end.
But The Human Resources Manager, much like any department the film depicts, is just engaging enough to keep watching even when it slows down a bit. Relational issues are front and center, but are only fresh with new encounters. The film reminded me of Jaffa, another Israeli film about a clash between cultures -- a "nice" film that could have delved much deeper. I'm happy Film Movement has its attention on global cinema, I honestly think life would be worse without their presence on the scene -- but from what I read daily in various blogs and magazines, there are much better films worthy of their attention.