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.