An affecting if slightly underwhelming examination of the lingering trauma endured by rape victims.

Two women are confronted with the ways a serial rapist from 30 years earlier continues to impact their lives in Michal Aviad’s affecting if slightly underwhelming drama “Invisible.” Based on the accounts of victims of a man dubbed the “polite rapist” by the press in 1977-78, the pic is at its best in exposing how qualifying words, such as “polite” or “pretty” are used in a deeply ingrained, chauvinistic manner that denigrates real trauma. Aviad brings together two powerhouse actors and weaves in actual testimony and contemporary footage, crafting a manifesto of sorts that could see limited arthouse play.

While going over news rushes of a confrontation between Palestinians and settlers, TV editor Nira (Evgenia Dodina) recognizes an Israeli anti-occupation activist who was a victim, like herself, of the “polite rapist.” Seeing the woman triggers a wellspring of emotions, and Nira seeks out Lily (Ronit Elkabetz), a dance and fitness instructor unwilling to start picking at the emotional scars from three decades earlier.

But Nira can’t suppress her memories any longer, and is determined to find out what happened to their attacker as she finally confronts all the ways the rape has affected her life. Her persistence, which includes tracking down newspaper articles and some of the other 14 known victims, gradually forces Lily to examine how the repression of that terrifying act of violence has impacted her marriage, her behavior with her children and her activism.

It’s something of a shock to listen to news reports and actual testimonies of the rapes, detailing their brutality, and to weigh that against the moniker “the polite rapist,” so-called because he demanded his victims gently stroke his back. The term disturbingly illustrates the dismissive attitude toward sexual violence against women, as do scenes in which soldiers and cops use objectifying and insensitive words that accurately expose a machismo hardly exclusive to Israeli society.

Aviad and co-scripter Tal Omer nicely carve out a hesitant friendship between two women of different temperaments (casting thesps of the caliber of Elkabetz and Dodina certainly helps), making each explore their traumas in different ways. However, despite their individuality, there’s something textbook about them, as if their attributes were cherry-picked from case studies.

Lily’s political activism is made a key element along with her reluctant search for closure, yet the combination of the two is a heavy weight for the film to bear. On one hand, it clearly and accurately insists that life should not be reduced to a single issue, yet in the context of the film, the extra scenes feel forced onto the main theme. What might work in a well-reasoned commentary piece is less successful onscreen, and despite auds’ emotional investment, “Invisible” sometimes feels like a piece of social activism dressed up as drama.

Nira has constructed a life that makes her independent and confident, traits Dodina easily conveys along with sudden vulnerability and determination once she gets in touch with her long-buried trauma. Lily’s fragility has never left her, despite a hardened shell; it’s a role Elkabetz knows how to do well, and make her own.

Color tonalities are washed out and avoid any kind of intensity, though it’s unclear what this adds to the emotional impact. Aviad occasionally tricks viewers by using the camera as if it’s a threatening presence; while the device can be seen as driving home the understandable paranoia and vulnerability of a rape victim, it’s also falsely manipulative and unnecessary in this context.

Invisible

Israel-Germany

Production

A Plan B Prods., Tag/Traum Filmproduktion production, in association with ZDF/Arte, Metro Communications. (International sales: WestEnd Films, London.) Produced by Ronen Ben-Tal. Co-producer, Gerd Haag. Directed by Michal Aviad. Screenplay, Aviad, Tal Omer.

Crew

Camera (color), Guy Raz; editor, Era Lapid; production designer, Adi Sagi-Amar; costume designer, Laura Sheim; sound (Dolby Digital), Aviv Aldema, Moti Heffetz; line producer, Boaz Vexler; associate producer, Alexander Bohr; casting, Yael Aviv. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 14, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Ronit Elkabetz, Evgenia Dodina, Mederic Ory, Gil Frank, Sivan Levy, Bar Miniely, Gal Lev, Miki Leon, Rami Baruch, Shlomo Sadan, Itamar Malul. (Hebrew, English dialogue)

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