“Punishing” may be the appropriate default setting for Holocaust dramas on film, but restless Israeli auteur Amos Gitai goes for extra credit in “Tsili,” a short, stark adaptation of Aharon Appelfeld’s 1982 novel that keeps the historical horrors offscreen, challenging auds instead with its formal severity. With its simple, bare-boned narrative made arcane by Gitai’s more intuitive poetic flourishes, this female-oriented, Ukraine-set survival tale makes grander emotional gestures as it goes along — integrating the eponymous Tsili’s grueling odyssey with that of her people at large. Still, this Venice entry is unlikely to be taken to heart by more than the director’s most patient fans; Gitai’s last few features have struggled to gain much traction with international distributors, and his latest looks to be no exception.
Bowing on the Lido one year after his single-take drama “Ana Arabia” — and days after his similarly stuntish short contribution to the portmanteau film “Words With Gods” at this year’s fest — Gitai’s latest concerns itself less with such overt gimmickry, though it’s far from a prosaic realization of its source text. Its most striking novelty is arguably the fact that it’s shot almost entirely in Yiddish, an increasingly rarefied language that certain cast members were required to learn from scratch. (Luckily for them, at least, it’s a film of fairly few words.) Contemporary filmmakers’ collective interest in this continually scrutinized era shows no sign of waning, yet while many of his peers labor to find entry points into the history for viewers with no direct conception thereof, Gitai prefers to keep his evocation as specific and specialized as possible.
The opening credits for “Tsili” are not encouraging, as the white-clad title character poses and pirouettes in undisciplined Pina Bausch fashion against an unforgiving black background; it’s a disconnected and oddly precious way to begin a film that otherwise has little inclination toward frou-frou ornamentation. From there, viewers are plunged directly into the harsh, bracken-thick forests of Ukraine’s Chernivitsi province, where young Jewish woman Tsili (played, at least initially, by Gitai favorite Sara Adler) seeks a place to rest as the sonic pop and clatter of warfare rages in the distant background. It emerges that she has narrowly evaded deportment to a concentration camp, though the rest of her family hasn’t been so fortunate; the exact circumstances of her escape are only detailed, in haunted, deliberately repetitive voiceover, toward the end of the film.
As Tsili forages for food and constructs herself a (none-too-subtly) womblike shelter in which to bed down until the coast is clear, 15 minutes pass before a single line of dialogue is spoken. It comes courtesy of Marek (appealing Canadian actor Adam Tsekhman), a fellow Jewish villager who installs himself in the reluctant Tsili’s temporary home; a none-too-consenting sexual relationship ensues, though her emotional attachment to him grows silently over time. This stretch is surely the film’s most strenuously austere, with d.p. Giora Bejach’s arresting lensing favoring dun hues, dusky half-light and claustrophobic closeups that recall the work of rustic French formalist Philippe Grandrieux or even the Dardenne brothers, name-checked in the closing credits.
Further obscuring proceedings is Gitai’s decision to have Tsili played simultaneously by two actresses (the second being the ethereal-looking Meshi Olinski) who don’t look especially alike. Occasionally, the women are even permitted to share the frame, as if to illustrate the consciousness-shattering effects of the war, while a third, older Tsili (voiced by Lea Koenig) is introduced in off-camera form in the film’s latter stages. It’s a risky, potentially confusing gambit that doesn’t quite manage the thematic payoff intended by the helmer, though both performers are strikingly expressive.
In the pic’s last third, with the war over and Marek having disappeared, Tsili joins a group of fellow survivors bound for Palestine; the proceedings adopt a more heightened register as the group unites in grief. In contrast to the sparse, birdsong-soundtracked forest section, this finale is distinguished by the penetrating violin concertos of young Israel-based virtuoso Alexey Kochetkov, which bring the film’s hitherto stoic sense of mourning to the fore. They continue into a concluding expanse of hazy black-and-white archival footage of Holocaust children at play; it might be churlish to suggest this constitutes the film’s most essential few minutes, but Gitai presumably wouldn’t have closed on them if he didn’t feel similarly.