Assassins dream of changing history. Sometimes they actually do.
John Wilkes Booth did it with his murder of Abraham Lincoln at the Civil War’s close, and Gavrilo Princip sparked World War I when he killed Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Also to be included on that list, each passing day makes grimly clearer, should be Yigal Amir, who on Nov. 4, 1995, killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and stamped out a slowly growing peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
That event has been a key part of numerous documentaries, including “The Gatekeepers” and “The Oslo Diaries,” and now comes a fiction film that approaches it from an unexpected point of view: that of assassin Amir himself.
Directed by Yaron Zilberman and starring Yehuda Nahari Halevi as the killer, “Incitement” has been a controversial success in Israel, where it was nominated for 10 Ophirs, Israel’s Academy Awards, winning best picture and becoming that country’s Oscar nominee.
Yet those expecting a bombastic diatribe will encounter a film that is anything but. A chilling portrait of how fanaticism can grow and be enabled, this is a matter-of-fact film that moves with an awful inexorability toward its foregone conclusion.
Co-written by the director and Ron Leshem, one of Israel’s top screenwriters, the film’s goal, as evident in its title, is to demonstrate how factors in Amir’s life first put the idea of assassination into his head and helped it grow until it came to make complete sense to him.
These are not big moments. They are if anything micro-incitements, small things that no one noticed or paid attention to when they happened. No one except Amir.
The “Incitement” team researched its story for four years — some documentary footage is used and the credits even mention “murder scene consultants” — and the script reflects this, referencing key theological players ranging from Maimonides to Meir Kahane to Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the founders of religious Zionism.
Considerable time also was spent working with actor Halevi, who comes from the same neighborhood of Herzliya as Amir and whose family went to the same synagogue as the assassin’s.
The result is a splendid, completely convincing performance that never forgets that Amir was no alien but someone ordinary whose thoughts and plans went unremarked upon by those who knew him.
“Incitement” starts roughly two years before Rabin’s assassination, on Sept. 13, 1993, when the prime minister signed the declaration of principles of the Oslo peace accords.
Listening to Rabin’s eloquent speech (“There is a time to kill and a time to heal”) on a portable radio is Amir, introduced as a kippah-wearing Orthodox young man doing the good deed of cleaning tombstones at a local cemetery. Within minutes, however, we see a completely different side of the man as he screams savage anti-Rabin denunciations at a demonstration. When Amir is about to be arrested, we see yet another side, his ability to talk himself out of difficult situations.
At this point in his life, studying law at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University, Amir is a typical student, very much interested in trying to get girlfriend Nava (Daniella Kertesz) to commit to a serious relationship.
“I’m like a laser pointer,” he tells her in a way that has chilling resonance. “I mark targets and I conquer them one by one, no matter what.”
Back home with his Yemeni-Israeli family, his mother (a strong Amat Ravnitzki) casts doubt on whether Nava’s Ashkenazi family will allow the match. She also reminds Amir of one of her strongest beliefs, that her son is “destined to redeem the Jewish people,” one of the small things that “Incitement” suggests lodged in his mind.
Another of these is how Amir became captivated by the exploits of Baruch Goldstein, the Orthodox Jewish settler who massacred Palestinians at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, even going to Goldstein’s funeral.
We also hear the often-expressed idea among Amir’s circle that “democracy must bow down to Judaism,” that “Jewish law is above any worldly law,” as well as the numerous imprecations heaped on Rabin as a traitor, even a Nazi. Amir also becomes fascinated by obscure Talmudic conversations about whether the dictates known as “the law of the pursuer” and “the law of the informer” could make Rabin’s murder legitimate, even mandatory, under Jewish law.
One of the controversial points “Incitement” makes involves the way Amir consulted rabbis as his idea of assassination grew, asking about it in veiled terms. While no rabbi specifically encouraged him, we hear no one absolutely forbidding the course of action, and that ambivalence turned out to be all this laser-focused young man needed to hear.
In Hebrew with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino.