Policeman, The (1970)

Director: Ephraim Kishon
Plot: Azulai is a policeman in Jaffa, whose incompetence is only matched by his soft-heartedness. His superiors want to send him to early retirement.

Genre: Comedy/Drama
Awards: Won 1 Golden Globe - best foreign language film.
Runtime: 87min
Rating: PG for some mature themes.


Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film about four decades ago, The Policeman is widely considered to be a classic of Israeli cinema. Directed by Ephraim Kishon, the film is a mix of comedy and drama, of which the former is most remembered for. Well-directed and somewhat well-written, the film however feels slightly dated when it comes to establishing some of the comic set-pieces and character interplay. There is no doubt that this film tickles the funny bone, with a couple of scenes bordering on “comical insanity”, but sometimes it tries too hard to be funny, causing the accompanying drama to be less than worth its weight.

The Policeman follows a constable sergeant of the Israeli Police Force as he sweeps the streets of his town for petty criminals. His name is Azulai (Shaike Ophir) and he brings public service competence to a new low but somehow manages to remain employed for nearly two decades. His character is not so much firm as strong-willed; he knows he has the rare ability to handle tough social situations with his unorthodox methods (to the bewilderment of his direct superior), but his kind and sympathetic nature means that he almost (too) frequently lets would-be offenders of public law off the hook.

Very much a character study of Arzulai, The Policeman uses its main character not as a stepping stone, but rather a “soaking sponge” to explore sensitive issues such as Jews versus Arabs, religion and race, and social ills like prostitution and drug dealing. What I mean by “soaking sponge” is that Arzulai (as a character viewers can easily relate to because he is the subject of near-constant humorous ridicule) is someone who could be relied on to treat sensitivity without the burden of being sensitive.

A sequence shows Arzulai and a gang ringleader (whom the former mistook as a terrorist in an earlier scene) getting drunk and engaging in a crass conversation about cultural differences. As if hypnotized by each other, they both then go up a makeshift stage and dance sluggishly (and with a certain element of intimacy if I may add) before a small crowd. A contrasting scene shows Arzulai in his commander’s office. His commander wishes to break the news to him that his contract would not be renewed. But a glance at Arzulai’s seemingly pitiful, about-to-cry face, changes the commander’s mind. And this happens not once, but twice in the film.

Arzulai is like a child in a man’s body, and a man in a child’s body, both at the same time. This gives the film an endearing character that we can root for. The downside is that the drama seems to be too mellowed to have a significant impact (due in part to the overwhelming comicality of the film). Thus, when the film ends on a not-so-happy note, some viewers would feel that it is a premature one, and that the emotional drama conveyed is less than satisfying.

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