At the end of the short interview excerpt that opens “Rabin: The Last Day,” the interviewer asks Shimon Peres, the man who succeeded Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister of Israel, a bold, hypothetical question: Would Israel be more peaceful and more stable if Rabin had not been assassinated by right-wing radical Yigal Amir back in November 1995? You listen for the conventionally cautious response typical to politicians —perhaps a reframing of the issue, perhaps a protest at the unanswerable nature of a what-if. It doesn’t come. Instead, Peres looks straight back at the interviewer and says, levelly and immediately, “Yes.” The Israel/Palestine conflict, with its intractable religious, ethnic, historical and cultural divides, is so complex and so deeply rooted that such a bold declarative statement doesn’t just sound surprising: it sounds dangerous. And the entirety of Amos Gitai‘s deeply absorbing, intelligent “Rabin: The Last Day” is similarly bold and declarative, albeit at 2 ½ hours long, a little more comprehensive.
For non-Jewish, non-Israeli Westerners, many of whom mysteriously find that it’s our round at the bar or that we’ve an important call to take whenever the subject of the Middle East comes up in conversation, ‘Rabin’ feels even more valuable for coming from an informed, engaged, insider perspective. Gitai, a festival-friendly Israeli filmmaker with a large, erratic body of work, seems to find in this material a focus and an aesthetic that makes what is essentially a procedural reconstruction, not of Rabin’s last day but of the events prior to and following his death, feel like a political thriller, if a somber one.
Blending archive footage with meticulously detailed, richly shot reconstructions (largely seamlessly, though there are a few jarring juxtapositions), often built from the records of proceedings that took place after the shooting, Gitai rightly trusts in the fascination of material that needs no sensationalism or gimmickry to command our whole attention. His restraint extends to what he decides not to show as well —the subject of the film is not so much Rabin as the factors that led to his assassination and the mess that it left in its wake, and so aside from archive footage, Rabin does not appear. The film is arranged around his absence.
The killing happened on the 4th of November 1995, as Rabin left a rally which had been designed to drum up support for the Israel/Palestine peace process of which he was the chief architect, and which was moving into a crucial phase following the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Although he and then-Foreign Minister Peres had been worried that the negotiations were losing popular support, the rally was well-attended and the response reportedly passionate and vocal, especially among the younger generation. But those elements opposed to any form of compromise with Palestine that would in their eyes be a betrayal of Israel tantamount to treason and the murder of Jews (effigies of Rabin had been dressed in Gestapo uniforms by protesters) came into alignment that day nonetheless. Through what seems to be a combination of negligence, incompetence and haste, security was lax enough to allow Yigal Amir, an indoctrinated extremist who has never to this day expressed regret for his actions, to get close enough to Rabin to shoot him three times. He was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.
But there are myriad conspiracy theories, often based on contradictions in testimony that can be read as sinister if you wish, or innocuous if you believe that life is messy, and any event examined this closely would be likely to pose such riddles. Why did it take 8 minutes to drive the dying Rabin to a hospital only 500 meters away? What was the tantalizingly redacted information concerning Avishai Raviv, an Israeli secret service agent posing as a far right extremist, and his links to the killer? There are many echoes here of other assassination narratives —JFK‘s in particular— with Rabin’s murder even having its own equivalent of the Zapruder home movie in the form of footage taken by a cameraman nearby.
However, more than a generalized comment on the difficulty of arriving at a monolithic truth about an event after the fact, this film is a minute and specific examination of this crime, these circumstances and this country. The authenticity of the details provide rich texture —the throwaway comment from the confessed killer about aiming the gun so as not to pierce certain organs (in accordance with rules regarding kosher slaughter); the concept of Pulsi di Nura, a Talmudic curse which calls down the angels of destruction on the subject’s head; the less brimstone-y but still easily corrupted idea of Din Rodef, in which a murder is believed justified if the victim were himself about to commit murder.
The film feels personal as well as procedural. In fact, there will undoubtedly be critics who claim a lack of “balance,” in that there is little attempt to understand the mindset of the extremists who supported and perhaps even groomed Amir for his actions. And some of those scenes, which are presumably more heavily fictionalized, as there’s no way there could be transcripts or records of secret meetings held furtively in windowless rooms, do stretch the film’s undemonstrative realism a little far. A female psychologist drafted in by a coterie of would-be conspirators declares it her professional opinion, formed from close observation of his media appearances, that Rabin is a dangerous “schizoid” who is suffering from a psychotic break from “reality,” and then bursts into tears at the prospect of him continuing to lead the country. A ceremony in which the Pulsi di Nura is invoked against Rabin portrays the participants, chanting in their hooded cloaks, as a frighteningly faceless cult.
But balance is not the aim, and the restraint of the style is deceptive: this is head-above-the parapet storytelling from Gitai. There is no doubting his belief in the fundamental rightness of Rabin’s position and the fundamental evil of his murder. This is what makes the engrossing, instructive “Rabin: The Last Day” so vital: it embodies the stance of the passionate moderate, a perspective that can easily get drowned out in the cacophony of Middle East politics. [B+]