For those who care about the prospects for peace in the Middle East and the fate of a secular Israel, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the religiously observant Yigal Amir is the saddest story ever told, a perpetual nightmare from which there may be no awakening.
Now, more than 20 years after that act, Amos Gitai, one of Israel’s most prominent filmmakers, has taken on that murder in the somber, compelling “Rabin, The Last Day,” an unusual work that mixes genres to at times awkward but always powerful effect.
Despite its title, Gitai’s film deals not only with the events of Nov. 4, 1995, but with what happened in the country in the days leading up to it as well as the official government investigation into the death that followed.
“The Last Day” includes talking-head interviews with former President Shimon Peres and Rabin’s widow, Leah, as well as a certain amount of documentary footage, largely of the demonstrations that preceded Rabin’s death. But most of it consists of reenactments and staged scenes, with the lack of identification of participants leading to intermittent confusion.
These situations, however, are not made up out of whole cloth. According to Gitai, “Our film is completely factual; it is based on existing documentation. For every line spoken in this film, we have the relevant documents with the words as they were originally spoken.”
Gitai, whose films include “Kippur” and “Kadosh,” has never been the most subtle of directors, and while that trait is in evidence here, the force of his directing serves in this case to underline how terrible an event the Rabin killing was.
The most chilling of Gitai’s re-creation is a scene of a group of Jews in prayer shawls placing a curse called the Pulsa Dinura on Rabin with the intent of ending his life. But even less-dramatic dramatizations hold our interest.
Among these, the conversations that stand out for their depiction of things gone fatally wrong are the testimony of Shamir’s bodyguard and that of the driver of his car, who somehow took eight to nine minutes to drive the third of a mile from the shooting site to the nearest hospital.
Perhaps most memorable of all are the interviews with the assassin Amir, effectively played by actor Yogev Yefet, a messianic extremist who tells an interviewing police officer that “I don’t care about the law, I care about the Jews.”
Though we see the assassination itself more than once, Gitai’s goal in making this film is not mere depiction. Just as the Shamgar Commission investigated the act itself, the director has said he wanted to create “a kind of cinematic commission of inquiry to investigate the incitement,” the situation in the country that led up to the act.
In line with this, Gitai shows documentary footage of furious demonstrations against the Oslo peace accords that Rabin signed, including pictures of Rabin’s head atop an SS uniform and crowds chanting “Death to Rabin” and “We’ll get rid of Rabin with blood and fire.”
These all speak to Gitai’s conclusion that the fire of sedition was alive in Israel, fed by rabbis and settlers apoplectic about Rabin’s land-for-peace ideas and backed up by opportunistic politicians.
Whether you agree with this conclusion or not, it’s hard not to feel the shock that shook the country at this murder, hard not to agree with Leah Rabin when she says, “It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that such a thing was possible.”