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Nelly Tagar and Dana Ivgy in Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation.” | ZEITGEIST FILMS RELEASE

Nelly Tagar and Dana Ivgy in Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation.” | ZEITGEIST FILMS RELEASE

BY STEVE ERICKSON | Only in the Israeli military could getting “grounded for Shabbat” make sense in a professional context. Yet the surprising thing about director Talya Lavie’s comedy “Zero Motivation” is how universal it is. The setting may occasionally seem exotic — in an early scene, someone looks out a bus window and sees a camel pass by. But office work is much the same in English or Hebrew.

Because of the military setting, “Zero Motivation” has been compared to “M*A*S*H” and “Catch 22.” At least for an American audience, that setting is a mere formality. “Zero Motivation” feels more like a TV show than a film, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Lavie’s sense of humor suggests Ricky Gervais, Mike Judge, and Larry David, though her focus on the ins and outs of female friendship is all her own.

“Zero Motivation” takes place at a remote desert outpost among a unit of young female soldiers who refer to themselves as “girls”. (Given Israel’s draft, most are 18 or 19.) Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are best friends and work in the same office. Devoted to each other, they spend their time playing computer games and sneaking back to their barracks for afternoon naps. They dislike most of the other girls on the base, who walk around singing vapid pop songs.

Comedy, at times dark, explores female friendship in the Israeli military

Most of all, however, Zohar and Daffi dread their senior officer Rama (Shani Klein), who wants a higher position but takes out her frustration on them. Initially seeming rather clumsy, Daffi grows more mature as she comes of age and takes on more responsibilities, while Zohar continues to rebel. The tensions between the two friends come to a boil.

Lavie’s most obvious talent is her mastery of tone. For a comedy, “Zero Motivation” gets pretty dark at times. It addresses some serious subjects, including suicide and rape. But it manages to deal with these subjects in an oddball way that defuses the tension they create. The suicide victim soon reappears as a ghost. The rape is ended by a gun-toting female soldier before it can really get underway.

Lavie isn’t striving to be politically incorrect in the manner of “South Park,” but she never veers into self-righteousness or scoring clear ideological points.

For a film about the Israeli military, “Zero Motivation” avoids all the obvious angles. There doesn’t seem to be a war on. Arabs aren’t mentioned a single time. Israel’s history is reduced to a display of childish paper reports displayed in the hallway, more suited to an elementary school. The soldiers joke about the Holocaust, likening their experiences in the military to a concentration camp. Boredom is a bigger danger than the rockets of Hamas.

If Lavie is making a political statement with “Zero Motivation,” it probably lies precisely in avoiding overt politics, and it likely seems more daring in Israel than in the US.

“Zero Motivation” manages to create a world of its own, reflecting Israel’s current ethnic makeup — with the notable exception of Arabs — and tensions. One girl is Russian. Zohar comes from a kibbutz, which her fellow soldiers find unusual. Living in Tel Aviv is a treasured goal among the girls, though Daffi is the only one totally enamored of the city.

The sets reflect the colors of the military uniforms — the walls are mostly painted gray and dark green. The soldiers rarely get to leave the base and when they do, they’re usually in transit somewhere. Although nothing awful happens to most of them, the base is a quietly oppressive atmosphere. The color scheme adds to this impression.

In 2014, it shouldn’t be rare to see a film examine female friendship in as much detail as “Zero Motivation,” yet it is. Lavie doesn’t simply celebrate female bonding, she examines the changing relationship between Zohar and Daffi over several years. This includes a minor betrayal of trust and one friend winding up in a position of power over the other. These are things that would test any relationship, but Lavie refrains from letting her heroines abandon their bonds too quickly. Guys don’t come between them, but the military hierarchy does.

In the end, “Zero Motivation” feels a bit like a blown-up sitcom, but it’s an extremely impressive one.

ZERO MOTIVATION | Directed by Talya Lavie | Zeitgeist Films | In Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens Dec. 3 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org

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