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Israel's Oscars pick explores mind of Rabin's assassin

Nearly a quarter century after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was felled by an assassin’s bullet, a new film exploring his killer’s motives is generating controversy, and garnering acclaim, in Israel.

Israel's nominee for best international feature film at the Oscars this year is “Incitement,” a psychological thriller that plunges viewers into the mind of the man who murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, during the height of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians. It follows Yigal Amir in the years leading up to the murder and presents the social and religious motivations that drove him to commit his crime. While Amir is the protagonist and appears in virtually every shot, the film manages to generate no empathy for his character or his motivations. 

Amir, a religious nationalist Zionist law student, was sentenced in 1996 to life in prison for the assassination. He has served most of it in solitary confinement and has never expressed contrition for his actions. His brother, Hagai Amir, was also imprisoned in connection to the plot.

In September, “Incitement” won Israel’s top cinema prize, the prestigious Ophir Awards for best picture, earning the privilege to be the country’s submission for the Academy Awards’ international feature film category.

Israel will mark the 24th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination Nov. 2 with a memorial ceremony in the plaza where Amir shot him. For Yaron Zilberman, the director of “Incitement,” however, there are constant reminders today of the atmosphere that led to Rabin’s murder. 

“Every week you have something that is a reminder of that period," Zilberman told Al-Monitor, describing the film as a “cautionary tale” of how incitement by politicians and religious leaders can lead to violence. He hopes it will work against what he perceives as growing apathy among young Israelis about Rabin’s assassination.

The original title of the film — “Yamim Nora’im” — translates to both “Days of Awe,” the Hebrew term for the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, a period of reflection and atonement spanning from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and “horrible days,” an allusion to the national trauma of Rabin’s assassination. Its final moments, which reenact the fateful shooting from the assassin’s perspective, are frightfully realistic. 

Central to the plot is the role played by extremist religious nationalist rabbis in inspiring and justifying Rabin’s murder, and the widespread incitement to violence by members of that community during the peace talks. An equal emphasis is placed on Amir’s struggle for acceptance as a Yemenite Jew in a religious Zionist world dominated by Ashkenazi Jews. That rejection is embodied in his rejection by a girlfriend whose family looks down on his Mizrahi heritage. 

Zilberman said the film tried to create a simulacrum of Amir from his police and Shin Bet interrogations, psychiatric evaluations and the official state investigation into Rabin’s assassination. Over six years, he and his research team also conducted extensive interviews with Amir from prison, and with his family.

“The film tries to follow his words in a way, his logic when he speaks,” Zilberman said. “When you read all this material, you start to really delve into his personality, to really understand what's happening from that perspective.” 

Amir is played by Yehuda Nahari, an actor who grew up in the same neighborhood of Herzliya. Their parents are friends and attend the same synagogue. Nahari recalled his full immersion into the role, from adopting Orthodox Jewish observances, such as forgoing physical contact with his girlfriend, to convincing himself that Rabin’s murder was justified. "I thought like him," Nahari told Israel's Channel 13. "It was surreal."

While “Incitement” has earned some critical acclaim — including from Amir himself, whose attorney told Israel Hayom that his client said the film "was well made as a cinematic drama, and I certainly recommend watching it” — its reception in Israel has not been enthusiastic. 

Film critic Shmulik Duvdevani, writing in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said that while "Incitement" is an essential film that offers "one of the most nightmarish and terrifying portraits of Israeli society.” He argued that "it's not an especially good or interesting film" and doesn't bring any new insights to Amir's character.

“Yigal Amir wasn’t and isn’t a psychopath,” he wrote. “The film packs his character with so many elements that influenced him, but doesn’t succeed in connecting them.” 

After the film received the Ophir Award, Culture Minister Miri Regev wrote on Facebook that the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, which is the jury for the award, has chosen "once again to pick defiant films that aim to break up the delicate fabric of relations in Israeli society.” She said there was “no place for a film that tries to understand Amir and his motivations and there’s no place for a film that hints or blames other figures in the horrific act he committed.” 

Zilberman dismissed Regev’s criticism as “ridiculous,” saying the aim of the film is to engender open discussion among Israelis about Rabin’s assassination, “and maybe heal this open wound that is still bleeding today.” 

He said there has been an "erosion of Rabin's legacy" in the years since his assassination by those opposed to peace with the Palestinians, by way of an "underground movement to make this murder into something that wasn't that horrible.” 

But as “Incitement” gears up for a possible shot at the Oscars, the film’s director believes it has a message that extends beyond the confines of Israeli politics and society. 

“It's relevant all over the world today more than ever,” he said, pointing to political trends around the globe. “You follow the story of a person, the radicalization of the person from — relatively speaking — a moderate political activist to an assassin. I think this is something that everybody needs to see, because in every society you see things that happen when somebody picks up a gun.”

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