During the period of the Oslo negotiations, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai spent many hours interviewing Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. He didn’t know it at the time, but that experience would become a pivotal part of a docudrama, the story of Rabin’s assassination by right-wing settler Yigal Amir. The product of three years of work by Gitai and his production team, “Rabin: The Last Day,” which opens on Friday, Jan. 29, paints a grimly vivid portrait of the maelstrom that surrounded the events of November 4, 1995, events that Gitai says left Israeli society “broken.”
It is a little more than 20 years after that day, and Amos Gitai is sitting in the breakfast room of a Midtown Manhattan hotel, sipping from a glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice and trying to explain how his film’s shape echoes the damage done by Rabin’s murder. He is a big man who looks more than a little like Vincent D’Onofrio, graying at the temples, dapper in a black sports jacket and shirt.
“I liked [Rabin],” the filmmaker said quietly. “He was not a classical politician — he was very simple, very straightforward; he said what he believed and he was courageous. That is very rare in the world of politics.”
How did his murder “break” Israeli society?
“We have lost the [shared] project of Zionism, and we live in this place right now, losing any options of healing,” Gitai said. “The conflicts are heightened now. All the barriers are down, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has put extremists in the judicial system, you have an over-excited minister of culture [Miri Regev], books are being banned.” (Gitai is presumably referring to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who some in Israel believe holds strident views, and a novel about a love affair between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman, meant for high school students, that was censored by the Education Ministry.)
He waves a hand to indicate the panoply of increasingly violent schisms rocking his country.
“Netanyahu is very capable but also very cynical,” Gitai continued. “Using hate and prejudice he was re-elected. He sets Orthodox against secular, Ashkenazi against Mizrahi, Israeli against Palestinian. It’s very harmful.”
The film itself makes the continuity quite clear between the Charedi extremists of the ’90s and their even deadlier counterparts today. The characters depicted in the film speak only their own words, offering wildly eccentric interpretations of rabbinic Judaism that accuse Rabin of satanic influences, or suggesting crackpot faux-clinical diagnoses of his alleged psychotic states. Not coincidentally, the characters have explicit echoes in recent violence perpetrated by the so-called hilltop youth.
For Gitai, the problem is one of worldview that goes to the very heart of the Zionist project.
“It is a political project, the conclusion of the question of Israel’s sovereignty,” he said. “It’s not a religious project.”
For Gitai, the idea of Israel as a “broken” society suffering from severe internal disruptions finds it artistic expression in the way he tells the story.
“Since the assassination of Rabin broke Israeli society, I thought we had to break traditional forms. We could have structured the film chronologically, we could have structured it thematically, but it would have been wrong. A fragmentation of the storytelling is necessary.”
Despite that formal choice, Gitai’s film is easy for an audience to follow. Structurally, the film is marked by a significant absence, that of its title character. That was a carefully considered choice by the director and his co-screenwriter, Marie-José Sanselme.
Gitai explained, “Rabin is the black hole at the center of the film; it is marked by his absence. I didn’t try to cast actors as the key real-life figures; I used news footage.”
He also used the subsequent investigation of the murder by the commission headed by Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar as the armature on which the narrative is strung; the decision had interesting implications for the resulting movie.
“I went to see Shamgar in his home,” Gitai recalled, sipping at a small cup of plain yogurt. “He’s of the same generation as Rabin, he’s in his 90s; he’s a distinguished guy. I told him, ‘You did a lousy job, you only investigated the operational failures. You didn’t investigate the incitements that caused the killing.’ He said to me, ‘We were limited in our mandate.’”
Shamgar talked the director through the protocols governing the formal investigation and gave him unprecedented access to the transcripts of the commission’s hearings. That left it to Gitai and Sanselme to investigate the missing components of the story, and they drew on a wide range of ultra-rightist sources to recreate the lethal firestorm of anti-Oslo and anti-Rabin opinion.
“We didn’t invent anything,” Gitai said emphatically. “It’s all verbatim.”
Period-set films are never about only the era in which they ostensibly occur. Like any other such film, “Rabin: The Last Day” is about the time at which it was made, but it uses its historical setting as a lens through which to examine contemporary Israeli society.
Consequently, the film draws on 1995 footage of Netanyahu, then opposition leader, cheerleading crowds of screaming, jeering and nearly hysterical rightists with placards and effigies comparing Rabin to the SS. Those images are unmistakably a reflection on how Gitai views Israel’s current political leader.
“Netanyahu is a very smart guy, but the place is in danger of becoming provincial, of closing itself off to the world,” he said. “We are a fragile country in a very unfriendly neighborhood. Do we really need some more enemies?”
Ask him about comparisons of “Rabin: The Last Day” to the work of a master of political drama like Italian director Francesco Rosi, and Gitai wryly turns into a football coach poor-mouthing his team’s chances against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“Oh, basically I’m just an architect; my references are seldom cinematographic,” he said with a smile. “Well, we did review Rosi and Costa-Gavras, particularly ‘Z,’ and I looked at Oliver Stone’s JFK film, [which convinced me] not to try to cast the important political figures.”
The film’s reception in Israel predictably broke down along political lines.
“It’s to be expected,” Gitai said. “I’m doing films that touch an exposed nerve in Israeli society. You do stuff because you want to leave a trace. I believe you have to be analytical, rational, or you close yourself off, and that is dangerous.”
Is he pessimistic about the future of Israel?
He shrugged, then said, “In a situation of conflict, you have to beware of becoming nihilistic; it’s not a good idea. Objectively there is good reason to be a pessimist, but you have to keep a level of optimism. I still believe in the power of ideas. If we [Israelis] didn’t live in ideas, we wouldn’t still be around.”
“Rabin: The Last Day,” directed by Amos Gitai, opens Friday, Jan. 29 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street). For information, call (212) 757-0359 or go to