In a passionately divided democracy, the hate-filled words of politicians, cultural influencers and the right-wing media incite an extreme nationalist to commit murder. Although this plot summary sounds as if could be ripped from recent U.S. headlines, “Incitement” is actually a provocative drama from Israeli helmer Yaron Zilberman (“A Late Quartet”), which looks at what inspired the devoutly Orthodox law student Yigal Amir to kill Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The assassination took place on Nov. 4, 1995, as Rabin was trying to orchestrate a comprehensive peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians that involved giving up territory controled by Israel since the Six Day War, and his death effectively derailed the prospect of peace.
While “Incitement” is a compelling watch, with archival footage neatly woven in, and offers a salutary warning about how easily democracies are endangered, this psychological profile of a political assassin nevertheless falls into a kind of moral trap. By putting the killer at the center of the film and focusing on his motivation, it inevitably elicits understanding, empathy and, conceivably, admiration for the wrong character.
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“Incitement” has been nominated for 10 Ophir awards in Israel (including best picture, which, if it wins, will make it Israel’s official Oscar submission) although it won’t be released there until after the Sept. 17 elections, perhaps in view of how Netanyahu comes off in the archival footage. Without doubt, it will prove controversial with the local audience, not least for portraying Amir as attractive and charismatic and for re-airing his views, which are still shared by many in the country — even in the Knesset.
The action kicks off in 1993, with a strikingly articulate Prime Minister Rabin at the Clinton White House in Washington, D.C., where he signs the documents known as “Oslo I” and shakes the hand of his longtime enemy, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, much to the disgust of Bar-Ilan University student Amir (Yehuda Nahari Halevi, intense), who joins public rallies calling Rabin a traitor. Although born in Israel, Amir is part of a large, lower-middle-class Orthodox family of Yemeni immigrants and he bears a chip on his shoulder about his Oriental heritage. Indeed, he brags to his Ashkenazi girlfriend Nava (Daniella Kertesz) that he is like a laser pointer, marking his targets and achieving them, such as graduating from what he claims is the best Ashkenazi yeshiva.
Although his gentle father (Amitay Yaish Ben Ousilio) is troubled by his son’s grandiosity and support of the American-Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein who killed dozens of Muslim worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, his more extreme mother (Anat Ravnizky, making a strong impression) never tires of boosting his self-regard, telling him that his given name, Yigal, means that he will redeem the Jewish people and that he is destined for greatness.
After performing his military service in a religious combat unit where he was viewed as one of the most fanatical members, Amir moves in a circle of ideologues and rabbis who are even more radical. He accepts and becomes obsessed with their theoretical arguments that justify the killing of Rabin under Jewish law.
With his older brother Hagai (Yoav Levi) and army buddy Dror Adani (Dolev Ohana), Amir plots to move into the territories that IDF forces are leaving under the Oslo agreement, but can’t find enough like-minded zealots to make it work. In the meantime, a rash of suicide bombings within Israel make it even more difficult for the peace process to gain traction. The filmmakers include archival footage that depicts the then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu condemning and misrepresenting Rabin’s plans, stirring up maximum anger among those determined never to give up an inch of land.
After Hava dumps Amir, he finds another religious settler girlfriend, Margalit (Sivan Mast), the niece of the rightwing rabbi Benny Elon. Although he constantly boasts about his plans to take Rabin out, saying that the secular state can’t judge him for obeying God’s law, she can’t believe that he would actually violate the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” and she doesn’t report him.
The screenplay, co-written by Zilberman and Ron Leshem, is the product of four years of research and stresses the protagonist’s psychopathy. They show Amir as a convincing liar when he needs to get out of trouble — and when he needs to remain in shooting range of the Prime Minister. He wants others to do things for him, but he doesn’t have time for their problems. Nevertheless, given that he is onscreen the entire time, audiences can’t help but care about him, which is a problem. Indeed, it might have helped the balance of the film to have even more footage of Rabin and his thoughtful, cogent rhetoric.
The high-quality production package is easy to look at, with kudos to Amit Yasour’s lensing that captures the special quality of Israeli light and Raz Mesinai’s spare, tension-inducing score.