Timed to the 20-year anniversary of Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Amos Gitai’s “Rabin, the Last Day” de-emphasizes the murder itself in favor of the institutional autopsy that followed, blending archival footage with solemn re-enactments of the Shamgar Commission’s official inquiry into the incident. Whereas this tribunal was legally restricted to examining only the “operative acts of negligence” that might have prevented the tragedy, however, Gitai’s rigorously fact-backed film attempts to understand the greater question of “how” — namely, the cultural conditions that made such a violent tragedy possible — and what the incident says about Israel today. It’s a subject perhaps better suited for an essay, done no favors in such flat cinematic form, and the film will ultimately be seen more widely at festivals than by paying auds in any country other the two that co-produced it: Israel and France.
In keeping with Gitai’s typically austere oeuvre, it’s a long, slow and sober piece — one could even call it a documentary, despite the fact that actors have been hired to perform deposition scenes derived directly from Shamgar transcripts. Astonishingly, the assassination was caught on video by a local newsman, and that footage directly informs the film’s most visually dynamic sequence, an overhead view in which shots are fired and the camera tilts upward, swirling around to join Rabin and his bodyguards in the limousine — like something out of a Gaspar Noe movie, as the car races to the nearest hospital (a 500-meter ride that we later learn took the driver eight minutes to make).
Debuting in competition at the Venice Film Festival, where Kennedy-centered assassination biopics “Bobby” (RKF) and “Parkland” (JFK) also premiered over the past decade, “Rabin” couldn’t be more different from those films, sharing more in common with Israeli helmer Dror Moreh’s Shin Bet documentary, “The Gatekeepers” in its testimony-driven, largely non-dramatized approach to the subject.
The film actually opens on a fresh talking-head interview with former Israeli president Shimon Peres, who immediately succeeded the slain prime minister in 1995 and reminds audiences of the impact the assassination has had on subsequent Israeli leaders, who he feels have been all the more inclined to stand their ground in the face of vocal, even potentially violent opposition. Apart from an archival interview with Rabin’s still-incredulous widow, Leah, that appears toward the end of the film, Peres’ remarks are the only traditional Q&A-style aspect to the film, though nearly every scene is designed to raise questions, while few yield satisfying answers.
Gitai himself is evidently still grappling with Rabin’s loss, having been inspired by the prime minister’s peace-making efforts to return to his home country after a decade-long period of self-imposed exile, which the filmmaker spent in France. But the very gestures that made Rabin a hero in the eyes of many also made him a target of discontent, particularly among Jews who felt he was acting in defiance of the Torah. Most controversial was his role in signing the Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and led to the eviction of Israeli settlements in occupied Gaza — depicted in a scene that intercuts between archival news footage and re-enactments as soldiers demolish homes and drag Jews from their disputed turf.
Nearly every other scene takes place in a claustrophobic library or holding cell as the Shamgar Commission goes about its investigation. Rabin’s actual assassin, 25-year-old Jewish activist and Eyal Yigal Amir (Yogev Yefet), is the only character Gitai permits to demonstrate any emotion above room tone, seen in a handful of quiet scenes: loading his handgun and stripping out of his traditional tallit kata undergarments to don the “camouflage” of a plain blue T-shirt.
Later, during interrogation, he looks smug as he justifies his actions by invoking the “bin rodef” allegedly ordered by Avishai Raviv — a Government Security Service agent around whom conspiracy theories swirl, so sensitive that testimony is forced to go off the record at the mere mention of his name. In another odd scene, Gitai shows a Rabin-hating rabbi performing an obscure “Pulsa diNura” Kabbalistic death curse, the significance of which is hard to untangle when a skeptical attorney general is asked why he didn’t take the threat seriously.
In retrospect — which, of course, is the privileged position both Gitai and the Commission take vis-a-vis the situation — Rabin’s death is revealed as a sequence of failures, from that of the security and police, to the hospital doctors, to the investigators themselves. “How could this happen?” the authorities want to know, but as in nearly any such bureaucratic post-mortem (from America’s House Select Committee on Assassinations to the post-9/11 Warren Report), they seem to be more interested in identified scapegoats than in truly comprehending what happened and taking lesson from the tragedy.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” sighs a weary-looking Michael Warshaviak (who plays one-third of the commission, acting alongside Yitzhak Hiskiya and Pini Mittelman) after the umpteenth witness tries to pass the blame. For Gitai, the peace-centric solution for Israel comes straight from Rabin’s lips, heard during the final stretch of this 153-minute film as the prime minister calls upon his fellow politicians for an end to schism-fomenting hate speech. If there’s renewed urgency to this message today, it’s because Gitai clearly feels the region has allowed religious extremism and concomitant violence to become the norm in political problem solving — strategies that play out on a daily basis in the region today, even if the country has been lucky enough not to lose another leader.