In 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot after attending a public rally. Rushed to the hospital, he died hours later. His assassin, Israeli ultranationalist Yigal Amir, is in prison for life, having achieved his goal: Without Rabin, the tentative Palestinian-Israeli peace process collapsed. Where's the story in an ending like that? Rabin had managed what no other Israeli politician could: showing formal recognition of Palestine and receiving recognition of Israel's statehood from Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian National Authority, with whom Rabin had signed the Oslo Accords. (He hadn't acknowledged independent Palestinian statehood.) The two men were going to make peace.
Would it have worked? Impossible to know. Yitzhak Rabin is not a golden calf, and his death was not a rallying cry. (If it had been, things might have changed for the better 21 years ago instead of for the worse.) In Amos Gitai's new film Rabin: The Last Day, the slain prime minister barely appears; instead, Rabin is made tangible by his absence.
We can never know what might have happened in some alternate universe in which Rabin survived, and Gitai is more interested in what's unknown about the assassination because of omission. Using interviews, archival footage, and reenactments, Gitai evokes the moment when the possible futures changed. His central texts are transcripts of hearings conducted by the Shamgar commission, which was organized by the Israeli government to investigate Rabin's assassination.
The reenactments are jarring not for their incongruity, but for their relatability. One woman in the process of being interrogated is asked to look over some documents in the archive. "Can I leave my purse here?" she asks, even as the archivist is waiting. Her everyday concern in an extraordinary circumstance is both grounding and unsettling. Yes, she could be any of us.
If anything, the film, not quite documentary or fiction, suffers from a narrowness of empathy. Reenactments of Amir's interrogation are bookended by footage of the Israeli army forcing young Jewish settlers from their homes, located (illegally) on Palestinian land. Today, in Netanyahu's Israel, such settlements are implicitly tolerated and even explicitly supported — but Rabin sent unarmed Israeli soldiers in crisp green uniforms to wrestle with equally young, idealistic men wearing woven shirts, blue jeans and the wide yarmulkes that signify settler-Zionists. We watch in slow motion as the men, twinned in their physicalities, fall to the earth. It's hard to tell if this is news footage or facsimile, but the pulsing crowd has the righteous flavor of a civil rights riot.
And that's the problem with the film. By glamorizing struggle and ideology across the Israeli-Jewish political spectrum, it once more invites empathy for only half of those locked in the conflict Rabin was trying to solve. Of course Israeli Jews deserve empathy, but where are the Palestinian perspectives on Rabin's assassination? On the undoing of the Oslo Accords? Enough of watching Netanyahu's face grinning from posters and television screens. It's not Gitai's responsibility (or that of any single filmmaker) to represent all sides of every story, but you might hope that a film more than two hours long would recognize the very long reach of decisions made by gunmen in Tel Aviv and by politicians in Jerusalem. This film is exhausting to watch. Imagine how exhausting living it might be.