Yaron Zilberman’s Incitement is a fine example of the dramatized history lesson that fills in the gaps of our knowledge on the subject of who did what to whom, and why, in the seemingly eternal political turmoil of modern-day Israel. In this case the subject is the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a crime committed to avenge Rabin’s rapprochement with the Palestinian people — with the emphasis on the assassin, a religiously motivated young Jewish idealist named Yigal Amir.
We’ve seen several well-meaning movies about Arab terrorists in the Middle East and what drives them to take action. Now here’s one about the rightwing Israeli variety. Yigal (played in a lather by actor Yehuda Nahari Halevi) is a Tel Aviv law student with Sephardic dark good looks and apparently bright prospects. However, he’s in a state of mental agitation at the thought of the “traitor Rabin” promoting peace with the Palestinians. Egged on by belligerent rabbis, Yigal and his nationalist friends take part in anti-Palestinian demonstrations and cheer the infamous Hebron Massacre, in which 29 Arabs were murdered in a mosque by an American-Israeli extremist.
Everyone Yigal associates with — with the possible exception of his parents and his Ashkenazi soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (Daniella Kertesz) — spends much of their time poring through Hebrew religious texts searching for a justification of their prejudices. A guy named Avishai (Ranaan Paz) belongs to the combative Jewish Defense League. Yigal’s ex-army buddies are willing to give him stolen military weapons, no questions asked. But much of the fire inside Yigal is stoked by saber-rattling religious leaders who see Rabin’s peace initiatives as a sellout of the Jewish people, a betrayal that must be paid for in blood. “This is God’s will and it must be fulfilled” is what Yigal hears — a classic refrain in any arena of sectarian strife, anywhere in the world. Yigal stocks up on handguns and hollow-point ammo, the kind that does the most damage to the target’s body. “Someone has to save our people,” he declares.
All the while, we’re watching the buildup to a climax we already know beforehand. That’s the trouble with this type of true-events pic, particularly the ones featuring deadly force. There’s no suspense, only tension. All the usual excuses for violent action in the service of self-righteous ideology get trotted out in Yigal’s measured, steady progression toward political murder, and they’re familiar to the point of ridiculousness. Someone asserts: “Democracy is the rule of the people, but what is the people compared to God?” A better reason to take up an alternative life of secular humanism would be difficult to find.
Incitement is the first feature by Israeli director Zilberman — he wrote the scenario with Ron Leshem and Yair Hizmi. Zilberman gets a wonderfully scary bit of role-playing from frequent TV actor Halevi, backed up by the naturalistic presence of Yoav Levi and Anat Ravnitzki as Yigal’s worried parents; Sivan Mast as his very last girlfriend, a well-connected student named Margalit; the aforementioned Paz as nationalist firebrand Avishai; and Gur Ya’ari as Margalit’s aloof and slightly sinister uncle, one of several rightwing rabbis we listen in on. Yigal’s inner motivation is a bit harder to pick out. He served as a soldier like almost everyone else in his country, keeping the Arabs down. His parents, especially his mother, have a fairly narrow-minded world view — they’re Jews who have lived their lives facing varying degrees of threat. When Yigal’s father finally sits his son down and tries to lecture him out of his increasingly militant tendencies, the speech arrives years too late. The rabbis and yeshiva hotheads have already radicalized Yigal irretrievably.
The scene of the actual assassination is a skillful mélange of newsreel footage and re-created inserts of Yigal stalking his prey at a rally in Tel Aviv — with Rabin essentially playing himself (as does future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the film’s gray eminence, in other scenes). On his way to shooting down his perceived enemy, Yigal passes posters put up by Netanyahu’s allies, of Rabin dressed in a German Nazi uniform. Incitement does not steer us to any conclusions in its portrait of the Travis-Bickle-like Yigal, a guy who ideally should never have had access to either ultra-religious bigotry or firearms. Instead, we’re drawn into Yigal’s frame of reference and then left alone to make up our own minds about the general advisability of killing our political foes. The film requires us to do our own thinking. As the progressive-minded American author Studs Terkel was fond of saying, “Take it easy, but take it.”