‘Rabin, The Last Day’

‘Rabin, The Last Day’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

A scene from Amos Gitai’s “Rabin, The Last Day.” (Kino Lorber)
A scene from Amos Gitai’s “Rabin, The Last Day.” (Kino Lorber)

Amos Gitai has achieved world recognition as an outstanding, groundbreaking film director. His films are celebrated across Europe. He has won many awards, and his movies have been showcased at festivals and museums across the globe. Most important, he has been successful in producing an extensive body of work.

But that does not mean that I am a devotee of his films. I am not! Do I admire him as a filmmaker? Yes! Gitai typically experiments; his avant-garde style, with extended sequences, that I think are both artistic and often long, tedious, and boring. Admittedly, the class I enjoyed least in graduate school was on experimental cinema, and though I always respected the great avant-garde filmmakers, I often have found their movies simply too hard to sit through.

With that said, I must tell you that Gitai’s latest film, “Rabin, The Last Day,” is masterful. It is a film truly worth seeing.

Gitai began his movie career with short films when he was in his early 20s and studying architecture at the Technion. There is little doubt of the strong connection he had with his architect father, who had studied at the Bauhaus school in Germany and died when Amos was just 20. Much of Gitai’s style is formed by his strong connection to architecture, with a strong emphasis on form and style. After a stint at Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in architecture in 1979, and a bit radicalized by his time in California, Gitai returned home to Israel. His first commissioned film for Israeli television, “Bayit,” a film about Palestinians’ attachment to their land, was deemed too inflammatory and barred from being broadcast. That did not deter him, and he continued making films.

As Israel was mobilizing to invade Lebanon in 1982, Gitai took his camera and interviewed Palestinians about their situation for “Field Diary,” a film that raised difficult questions. Within a year, disgusted with the political situation in Israel, he left for Paris, a stay that would last a decade.

Amos Gitai’s sojourn in France was productive. He made a film every year — often it had a clear leftist ideological stance. He returned to Israel when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister and the Oslo Accords were signed. At home, Gitai continued to make films, sometimes documentary, sometimes narrative. His work, while appreciated in the art-house world, garnered real attention in this country only with release of “Kadosh,” a 1999 film that looked hard at the Orthodox world in Israel. The movie focused on a husband and wife, madly in love, who had not had a child even after 10 years of marriage. Next in line to take over his father’s position as rabbinic leader, the husband is forced to divorce his wife so that he may find a new partner who can give him a child.

Gitai created a brilliant first half of the film, but I believe that his deep dislike of traditional Judaism got in the way during the second half. That enmity is visible in much of his work, including “Rabin, the Last Day.”

Amos Gitai got to know Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, traveling with him and often talking with him on trips to Washington and Cairo, as he worked on a television broadcast, “Give Peace a Chance.” It becomes clear right away that he felt great love and admiration for the former prime minister. With “Rabin, The Last Day,” Gitai used transcripts from the 1996 Shamgar Commission of Inquiry to tackle one of the most horrific days in Israel’s history. During much of the film the audience is among the observers in the hearing room, listening to testimony. The commission was established after Rabin’s assassination to study how better security measures might have prevented it. Chaired by the retired president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar, and including former Mossad director Zvi Zamir and Tel Aviv University’s law school dean, Ariel Rosen-Zvi, the commission found fault with Israel’s intelligence agencies, the police, and Rabin’s bodyguards. But the commission was not given the authority to look into the conditions that many believe led to Rabin’s murder. Did some people actually provide talmudic “din rodef” permission for the murder of the prime minister? Did anti-Rabin rallies created by anti-Oslo opposition incite violence, culminating in the assassination? Gitai, sticking to the commission’s transcript, uses every opportunity to point his finger in blame. In general, it is aimed at members of the Likud leadership of the time, and particularly its spokesperson, Benjamin Netanyahu. Gitai’s disdain for the right and loathing of the religious settler movement is very much felt throughout the film. In a real sense, Gitai uses it to put the people whom he sees as the instigators and accessories to the murder on trial.

Using actors, the director has recreated that day in November, 20 years ago, that altered Israel forever. He interweaves documentary and narrative styles with his recreation of the Commission of Inquiry. As Gitai told me in an interview, “It’s as if this big rupture is applied to the writing of the script itself.” Beginning the film with a stunning interview of Shimon Peres, the former president and prime minister, who was then 92, by actress Yael Abecassis, we are introduced to the notion that “things would have been different had Rabin lived.”

The film ends with an interview with Leah Rabin, shot by Gitai days after the assassination, in which she casts blame on the opposition party for her husband’s murder. What becomes clear is that this film is meant to serve both as a memorial to the murdered prime minister and as an indictment of the system that failed to point blame for his murder beyond the assassin’s trigger finger. Gitai powerfully uses his gift for exploiting a moving camera to provide extended sequences that never lose our interest. We follow the flow of action in and out of the commission room. Flashbacks to the actual events are flawlessly interwoven with archival footage.

One of the most powerful moments is when a truck brings a trailer to a settlement, and the architect-filmmaker uses an extended sequence to show you every detail of its construction and placement. His point is clearly made when we watch an Israeli soldier destroy the trailer later in the film. The camera also has us believe that we are watching the actual shots fired that day by assailant Yigal Amir, played brilliantly by actor Yogev Yefet. Pini Mittelman and Michael Warshaviak, who play commission members, and Yitzhak Hizkiya, as commission chair Shamgar, are very persuasive.

Amos Gitai is not a director who gives us cinema that everyone will enjoy. He does not hold back on his ideology and politics. Though you may not agree with him, you truly must appreciate this incredible film. Go see “Rabin, The Last Day.” It will give you much to think and talk about.

The film, directed by Gitai, is co-written with Marie-Jose Sanselme. It opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and soon should be playing in New Jersey and across the nation.

Eric A. Goldman teaches cinema at Yeshiva University and lectures on Jewish, Israeli, and Yiddish cinema. He is founder of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish cinema.

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