The Israeli drama “Incitement” grabs a third rail and holds on tight. The movie, directed by Yaron Zilberman (“A Late Quartet”), presents a discomfortingly close-range depiction of what Yigal Amir saw and heard in the roughly two years before he assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, on Nov. 4, 1995.
Both the subject matter and the approach are fraught with danger. Even making a movie about an assassin risks elevating him to a stomach-turning level of prominence — although given the shadow that Amir already casts over the politics of contemporary Israel, where Rabin’s rival Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power and the peace process that Rabin fought for has receded into the horizon, perhaps that notoriety already exists.
But a film that argues that Amir (played by the extraordinary actor Yehuda Nahari Halevi) didn’t act in a vacuum — that he was a burning fuse that, again and again, friends, family members and rabbis refused to put out — might also appear to be making excuses for his actions. “Incitement” makes the implicit case that such a criticism would have the issue backward: The notion that the political atmosphere and religious extremism in Israel in the 1990s incited Amir to violence is not new. And while Amir may be in prison, this tense, politically angry film suggests that Israel bypassed a reckoning with the nurturers of his fanaticism.
Zilberman mitigates some of the perils of the project by subtly differentiating his movie’s perspective from Amir’s. At a screening at the New York Jewish Film Festival this month, the director said he had opted for several distancing devices — odd angles, no melody in the score — to keep viewers from getting swept up in Amir’s point of view.
Halevi is in virtually every scene, often in close-up or with the camera over his shoulder, and is frequently isolated within the claustrophobic, squarish frame. (The actor’s sly smile is chilling at the beginning and becomes more so as the movie goes on.)
The son of Yemeni-born parents, Amir is shown as a striving law student with a chip on his shoulder. He pursues a relationship with Nava (Daniella Kertesz), whose parents, settlers in the West Bank, would rather see her involved with someone else. (Their first scene together is a rare occasion when “Incitement” seems too on-the-nose: “I’m like a laser pointer,” he tells her. “I wonder what your next target is,” she replies.)
The product of a politically divided household — his father, a Torah scribe, supports the Oslo Accords on which Rabin staked his leadership, while his mother does not — the movie’s Amir surrounds himself with toxic influences. Early in the film, he listens intently to a rabbi who defends Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 praying Muslims in Hebron in 1994. He has a crackpot dream of starting a vigilante militia that will do things the Israel Defense Forces will not, and using religious retreats to lure recruits. Those close to him ignore or dismiss as jokes his declarations that someone should kill Rabin. The most generous interpretation of the rabbis from whom he seeks religious justification for an assassination is that they see his questions as hypotheticals.
Potently, “Incitement” depicts Amir as just one member of a self-reinforcing fringe. Few people he interacts with challenge his beliefs. Zilberman gives the movie an extra charge by fluidly interweaving scenes of the dramatized Amir with news clips of political speeches and rallies from the time — the sort of rallies at which posters might show Rabin’s face caught in cross hairs. The overall sense is that, with conditions set, incitement is an easy, even passive process — and that Amir’s murder of Rabin is not only a tragedy, but also a cautionary tale.