Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai doesn’t seem to have a career so much these days as a mission. It would be difficult for this ambassador of his nation’s cinema to break away from Capital-t Topics at this point, but his lugubriousness as a filmmaker indicates that he believes in his own cause as much as his admirers do. Long, slow single takes and tracking shots that call attention to themselves and humorless, self-consciously “penetrating” close-ups are normally the order of the day for Gitai. And this one-man film warrior has finally, with his latest, “One Day You’ll Understand,” made his first explicit fictional work of Holocaust remembrance. While its intimacy occasionally brings out some memorable pocket-sized moments, the film is still burdened with Gitai’s dry art-cinema tactics and narrative didacticism.
In this drably appointed chamber drama set in the Eighties, adapted from an autobiographical novel by Jerome Clement, a Catholic-raised French businessman, Victor Bastien (played by Gallic cinema mainstay Hippolyte Girardot, most recently scowling it up in “Flight of the Red Balloon” and “A Christmas Tale“) uncovers the truth about his Jewish parents during World War II, namely that they passed (and his mother continues to pass) as gentile, and furthermore that his father declared himself Aryan to survive. Jeanne Moreau, compelling in the film’s only spontaneous performance, plays Victor’s mother, Rivka, who’s still mostly unwilling to talk about the past, about herself and her own parents, who were killed in the Holocaust.
Introduced listening to the 1987 radio broadcast of the Klaus Barbie trials as she ambles around her cavernous Paris apartment, Moreau bears a lifetime of identity conflict on her wizened face; the film will chart not only Victor’s discoveries but also Rivka’s memory thaw, as she gradually begins to accept the truth and share her heritage with her children and grandchildren. Yet Moreau makes her greatest impression in the early scenes, such as when, amidst her son’s prodding, she cannily continues to change the subject while serving an elegant lunch. With her big, tired eyes and protruding lips, Moreau is something of a caricature of herself now, but her naturally aged features give her more gravitas than anyone else of her generation, and Gitai’s smartest move is to keep the camera tight on her, watching for flickers of change and grace.
If only anything or anyone else were allowed to breathe as easily. Even Emmanuelle Devos, whose bemused quackishness has breathed life into nearly every film she’s been a part of, is reined in here as Victor’s wife, and for the first time her dynamic idiosyncrasies are almost completely dulled. Dominique Blanc, as Victor’s sister Tania, fares slightly better, but only because her character is made more of an integral component to the narrative.
Gitai’s film is as single-minded as Victor’s search for the truth, which is told in muted, somber tones. One comes away with the sense of not having watched people so much as shadows re-enacting the past. The only moment to transcend this comes when Rivka makes the surprising decision to bring her curious grandchildren to synagogue. Moreau’s interaction with the children as she explains to them the High Holy Days’ significance to both her and all Jewish families comes across as enormously touching: it’s an important, final catharsis for Rivka, and it’s writ across Moreau’s suddenly calm face. While Victor’s comes across as merely theoretical, Rivka’s search for her own truth remains the most compelling, human struggle Gitai conveys.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]