You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘The Testament’

A Jewish historian investigating a Holocaust atrocity uncovers an identity-challenging family secret in this low-key film.

Ori Pfeffer, Rivka Gur, Hagit Dasberg, Shamul Ori Yaniv, Orna Rothberg, Daniel Adari. (Hebrew, German, English, Yiddish dialogue)

Though it may play better in festivals with a Jewish focus, to secular audiences, the main thrust of Amichai Greenberg’s sincerely intentioned but unnecessarily dour debut “The Testament” is difficult to fully invest in. It details a rigorously, frostily devout Jewish Israeli historian who discovers that the founding principle of his unyielding worldview is false. It’s a potentially engaging, provocative topic, and criss-crosses with a richer subplot about a long-buried Holocaust mystery in clever and illuminating ways, but the film’s overall power is hampered by its forbiddingly unsympathetic lead character. Given little reason to care about this man, it’s hard to care about his spiritual identity crisis.

Yoel (Ori Pfeffer) is a leading Holocaust scholar working in a state-of-the-art research institute in Jerusalem — the wide shots in this location, with its clean, modern lines that seem to suspend people in white space above densely packed bookshelves, are among the most striking in an otherwise rather pallidly shot film. And they underline the story’s thematic concern with truths buried beneath our feet: Yoel’s current project is getting the Austrian government to admit that a massacre of 200 Jewish forced laborers took place in the small village of Lensdorf during the waning days of the war, but his efforts are complicated because, after 21 excavations, he has not been able to locate the mass grave.

In the course of his painstaking investigations, which turn up evidence of a systematic cover-up, Yoel accidentally happens upon a startling find: the face of his mother (Rivka Gur) flashes up in a restricted file, attached to a different name. Secretively pursuing this lead, he discovers that his mother not only is not the woman she’s always claimed to be, but was not even born Jewish.

For Yoel, who wears the untrimmed beard and payot of strictly observant tradition, the information is a thunderbolt that undermines everything that defines him. It’s particularly destabilizing because, as established in an early TV interview scene, as a historian, he is deeply opposed to any relativism around the idea of objective truth. Facts are facts, and Yoel’s mother not being born Jewish makes him goyim too — despite a lifetime of such dedicated adherence to Jewish tradition that it has somewhat alienated him from colleagues and family members. It has even colored his relationship with his young son, whom he sees only occasionally, and then spends most of their time haranguing him for not applying himself to his Torah studies.

Part of the problem is that Yoel is such a difficult character. His faith seems to being him no joy or compassion — not even much solidarity with his fellow faithful — just a borderline antagonistic self-righteousness in the pursuit of his undoubtedly righteous mission. It’s an aspect of his identity that, inextricably entwined with his intellectualism, is of crucial importance to him, but not so much to those around him, including his sister (Orna Rotenberg) who reacts to the revelation of their mother’s long-held secret with more pragmatism than Yoel is capable of. As his long-suffering boss (Hagit Dasberg) at the institute tells him in exasperation when he hesitantly reveals his supposedly shameful non-Jewishness, it hardly matters, because that wasn’t the reason he was hired. In fact, she adds, “Nobody gives a damn that you think you were sent by God.” Moments like these, when Greenberg’s screenplay explicitly complicates and critiques Yoel’s self-defeating absolutism (he won’t even follow the kindly advice of his rabbi to let the whole issue go) are interesting, but in short supply.

Formally, the film is low-key, with DP Moshe Mishali’s camerawork mostly unfolding under gray uncertain skies and in sterile interiors. And while the historical mystery Yoel investigates is the more involving strand, it gets short shrift in a denouement that’s played as a revelation but is actually rather predictable.

So by the close of “The Testament,” we’re left with only the perfunctory satisfaction of witnessing Yoel’s gradual realization that dogmatic religious intransigence is no friend to the pursuit of truth. Absolute facts do exist, and there is immense, vital value in their excavation, but it does not lessen their gravity to suggest that our vantage point on them can and will change, as surely as the topography of a parcel of land can shift over time.

Venice Film Review: 'The Testament'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 6, 2017. Running time: 94 MIN. (Original title: “Ha Edut ”)

Production: (Israel-Austria) A Gum Films production, in co-production with Freibeuter Film, with the support of Isreal Film Fund, Jerusalem Film Fund, Austrian Film Institute, Keshet TV, Yes TV. (International sales: Intra Movies, Rome.) Producers: Yoav Roeh, Aurit Zamir. Co-producers: Sabine Moser, Oliver Neumann.

Crew: Director, writer: Amichai Greenberg. Camera (color, widescreen): Moshe Mishali. Editor: Gilad Inbar. Music: Marnix Veenenbos, Walter W. Cikan.

With: Ori Pfeffer, Rivka Gur, Hagit Dasberg, Shamul Ori Yaniv, Orna Rothberg, Daniel Adari. (Hebrew, German, English, Yiddish dialogue)

More Film

  • Alamode Acquires Lone Scherfig’s ‘The Kindness

    Alamode Acquires Lone Scherfig’s Berlin Opener ‘The Kindness of Strangers’

    Munich-based Alamode has taken German and Austrian rights to Lone Scherfig’s “The Kindness of Strangers,” ahead of the picture’s opening-night gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival next month. Alamode acquired the rights from London-based HanWay Films, which is handling worldwide sales. Entertainment One is distributing the film in Canada and SF Studios in Scandinavia. [...]

  • Voltage Pictures to Produce Airborne Thriller

    Voltage Pictures to Produce Airborne Thriller 'Blackwing' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Voltage Pictures will produce and fully finance screenwriter David Loughery’s latest thriller “Blackwing,” Variety has learned exclusively. The company will introduce “Blackwing” to buyers at the upcoming European Film Market at the Berlin Film Festival, which opens Feb. 7. More Reviews Iranian Film Festival New York Review: 'Sheeple' Film Review: ‘Storm Boy’ Nicolas Chartier and [...]

  • ‘Metro Exodus’ Opens Up Post-Apocalyptic Russia

    ‘Metro Exodus’ Author On Film, Possible TV Series, Expansive New Game

    Since the launch of the post-apocalyptic survival first-person shooter “Metro 2033” in 2010, the series has kept its action confined to the tunnels running underneath Russia. “Metro Exodus,” due out next month, takes the gameplay to the surface for the first time, going above ground with sprawling levels against a changing backdrop of weather conditions [...]

  • Berlin Film 'The Ground Beneath My

    Berlin Competition Film 'The Ground Beneath My Feet' Sold to Germany's Salzgeber (EXCLUSIVE)

    Salzgeber has acquired the German rights for Berlin Film Festival competition title “The Ground Beneath My Feet” from sales agent Picture Tree International. Variety has been given exclusive access to the film’s trailer. Salzgeber will release the film, directed by Marie Kreutzer, mid-May. Picture Tree describes the movie as a “contemporary female-led drama touching on [...]

  • Donald Glover'Atlanta' TV show premiere, Arrivals,

    Childish Gambino Surprises Beverly Hills Crowd With Reimagined 'Redbone'

    Donald Glover made an unexpected appearance at Film Independent’s “An Evening With…” series on Tuesday, held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and presented by the HFPA. Joining “Black Panther” composer and Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, who was the subject of a Q&A conducted by “The Treatment” host Elvis Mitchell, [...]


    Film News Roundup: Glenn Close Selected for Oscar Wilde Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Glenn Close gets an honor, AFI names its Directing Workshop for Women participants and Teri Polo gets cast in a Christmas drama. CLOSE HONOR More Reviews Iranian Film Festival New York Review: 'Sheeple' Film Review: ‘Storm Boy’ Glenn Close will be honored on Feb. 21 by the US-Ireland Alliance at [...]

  • Jason Reitman Ghostbusters

    Jason Reitman to Direct Secret 'Ghostbusters' Movie

    Sony Pictures is getting the wheels in motion for the next installment in the “Ghostbusters” franchise, and it knows who it’s going to call to direct: Jason Reitman. Sources tell Variety that Reitman, whose father, Ivan, directed the first two “Ghostbusters” movies, will direct the latest pic in the famous franchise. More Reviews Iranian Film Festival [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content