Amos Gitai’s 'Rabin, the Last Day' Is Important as It Is Disappointing

The only question is whether Gitai succeeds in conveying the full importance of the story of the assassination, and the answer, for the most part, is yes.

A meeting of the Shamgar Commission in Amos Gitai's film 'Rabin, the Last Day.'
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Rabin, the Last Day Directed by Amos Gitai; written by Amos Gitai, Marie-Jose Sanselme; with Yitzhak Hizkiyah, Michael Warshaviak, Yogev Yefet, Einat Weitzman, Dalia Shimko, Gedalia Besser, Yael Abecassis, Ronen Keinan, Liron Levo, Tomer Russo, Eldad Prives, Amnon Rechter, Uri Gottlieb

Amos Gitai’s “Rabin, the Last Day,” now showing in Israel, does not have what we saw abundantly displayed at the recent rally marking the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. It has neither the tacky sentimentality of the memorial ceremony, nor the pathetic determination to ignore reality and see the memory of the assassination as one that unites Israeli society. Unlike the rally, the film does not flee from history into romantic nostalgia, and above all, it is not afraid to politicize the event – a fear that left its mark on practically every part of the ceremony, even if some of the speakers did talk about war and peace, incitement, hatred and murder, and though the rally did mention the idea of a two-state solution.

The speakers at the rally were addressing the already-convinced, as though talking over their heads to others who were not present or listening. President Reuven Rivlin repeatedly referred to the gathered crowd as “loved ones,” speaking to them as though everyone present was a young man or woman; former President Bill Clinton called on the audience in the square to make the change happen, as though that were still possible.

The ceremony, like those of previous years, was stately and dignified in the worst possible way. It sought to commemorate, while in fact consigning memory to oblivion. Gitai’s movie has a different aim. It isn’t sentimental or nostalgic; it is a political film. For that, I am willing to forgive its limitations.

“Rabin, the Last Day” is not Gitai’s first engagement with Rabin’s murder, but almost 20 years and a complete change in attitude separate his two works on the subject. In 1996, very soon after the night Rabin died, Gitai made a film called “Territories,” which wandered through post-assassination Israel on both sides of the 1967 border. Using the impressionistic, associative style that characterizes many of his films when they are not explicitly features, Gitai combined interviews (with Leah Rabin, Aviv Gefen and others) with dramatized scenes, verbal and musical texts and personal ruminations on his biography and relationship to Israel. “Territories” was driven by emotion, not historical perspective, and if the movie had one central flaw, it was that it seemed a too-quick indulgence in the artist’s own grief, which was supposed to represent a collective grieving.

Now, 20 years later, Gitai has made “Rabin, the Last Day.” In this movie he returns to the traditional position of a film director – that is, behind the camera – as he did in his feature films “Kadosh,” “Kippur” and others, even if the result still moves, at times clumsily, between straightforward storytelling and the collage approach found in many of his documentaries.

“Rabin, the Last Day” is not exactly what its title suggests. The phrase “last day” has a fatalistic message that finds its foremost expression in the last shot, where Gitai offers a variation on a narrative and visual ploy he has used before, at the end of his 1989 “Berlin-Jerusalem”: he uses one long shot to connect the past to the present (the film contains several long shots, one of Gitai’s trademark devices). This time his use of it is less showy – but more chilling for anyone who has lived through the last few months here in Israel. The last day, with its symbolic political meaning translated into that closing shot, succeeds in Gitai’s film to haunt and threaten us.

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After a stumbling beginning in which Yael Abecassis plays a journalist interviewing Shimon Peres as himself, “Rabin, the Last Day” spends its 153 minutes moving between a fictionalized account of the murder, including Rabin’s arrival at Ichilov Hospital, and archive footage of the period: the incitement at right-wing rallies, clashes between settlers and soldiers, and more. By combining fiction with documentation, the film moves toward its two cores – one major, the other minor – which are also where it fails most badly.

We witness parts of Yigal Amir’s interrogation after the murder. In my opinion, just as Gitai refrained from showing the wounded Rabin, he should also have avoided showing Amir, played by Yogev Yefet. Amir’s face is too strongly burned in our memory for us to be able to accept an actor in his role, especially since that actor has nothing in common with Amir beyond the general Mizrahi appearance. Yefet – and this is Gitai’s fault – cannot convey anything of the presence that Amir had when we first encountered him. He represents Amir on the screen, but that representation has no depth, validity or meaning. It would have been better to let the memory of Amir’s face echo through the movie, like Rabin’s, and to show him only in archive footage and photographs.

Visually clumsy

The more major problem at the heart of “Rabin, the Last Day” is the account of the Shamgar Commission, set up to investigate the assassination. The film gives us access to the commission’s protocols and to some of the testimony it heard, but Gitai could not find an effective way to share the procedure. The scenes showing the commission at work are artificial and visually clumsy, in part because Gitai didn’t quite tell the actors whether to act or not; the result is recitation, not documentation. This causes the movie to miss what might have been one of its most important aspects – an exploration of the commission’s decreed task, which it faithfully upheld: not to examine the ideological circumstances leading up to the murder, but only the actual chain of events.

For anyone who lived through the Rabin assassination and the two decades since, “Rabin, the Last Day” has little new to offer. I don’t want to suggest that Gitai is being manipulative, but his movie will interest non-Israeli viewers far more than local ones. The latter, who experienced the event firsthand, have for years heard increasingly despair filled discussions of the circumstances leading up to the assassination and the way it changed the course of Israeli history.

The only question is whether Gitai succeeds in conveying the story’s full importance, and the answer, for the most part, is yes. “Rabin, the Last Day” doesn’t offer much historical depth in depicting Rabin’s work, the Oslo Accords, their outcome and what is often referred to as Rabin’s “legacy.” What Gitai has to offer on this subject is fairly shallow: The movie all but ignores Rabin’s complexity as an ideologue and a leader, but it does indict those who opposed him and stopped at nothing to incite against him, including his political rivals and the religious establishment. In this sense, the film is disappointing, but also important.

Many of Gitai’s pictures in the last decade have disappointed. Accepting them required overcoming many obstacles, and the effort was not always worth it. “Rabin, the Last Day” is his most complete work in quite a while. It is not complete in every way, not a work whose depth befits its essence, but still, it is a respectable film, flawed in Gitai’s typical ways but also showing his gifts and occasional signs of a maturity and discipline that were not always there in his older pictures.

The movie’s collage-like nature is best able to capture the way we have come to remember the assassination: it is a mosaic of fragments that continue to trouble us, refusing to come to rest. The biggest coup of “Rabin, the Last Day” is the way it translates this mosaic into a cinematic structure, at once open-ended and coherent.

The accusations, memories and refusal to accept what happened combine in Gitai’s movie into the portrait of a local consciousness that may be shared by fewer and fewer people; still, it is important that the movie comes to reignite it, pulling it from the past 20 years forward, into the present where the film is now being shown. Even if “Rabin, the Last Day” succeeds in doing this only in part, the attempt alone commands my respect.