'The Testament' ('Ha'Edut'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Ori Pfeffer in 'The Testament.'
Earnest but enervating.

Ori Pfeffer stars in writer-director Amichai Greenberg's debut feature, an Israeli-Austrian co-production that premiered in the Orizzonti sidebar of the Lido festival.

Heard the one about the Holocaust-investigating rabbi who finds out he's actually a goy? This is the situation, rich with comic potential, played out with plodding seriousness in writer-director Amichai Greenberg's frustratingly inert feature debut The Testament (Ha'Edut). Taking as its starting point two notorious real life massacres from the final days of World War II, the Israeli-Austrian co-production bowed in the Orizzonti section at Venice. Despite its widescreen cinematography, the picture is a distinctly small-screen proposition, one that may play best in educational contexts.

Ori Pfeffer is ennui inducingly low key in the underwritten central role of Yoel, a sadsack 40-something estranged from his (seldom glimpsed) wife and young son. Sustained by his Jewish faith and his work, he toils in basement quarters of the Holocaust Institute in Jerusalem; his latest case involves the murders of Jewish forced-laborers near the Austrian village of Lendsdorf in 1944.

Lendsdorf is a fictional location; Greenberg draws from the killings of 200 Hungarian Jews at Rechnitz in March 1945 (which inspired Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek's 2008 play Rechnitz [The Exterminating Angel]), and the deaths of around 60 forced laborers at nearby Deutsch Schutzen-Eisenberg some four days later.

Yoel's research leads him to highly classified interviews supposedly kept under lock and key until the speakers' deaths — but his terrier-like pursuit of the truth through the hazy "realm of doubt" leads him to bend the rules. What he learns about his own family, specifically his octogenarian mother Fania (Rivka Gur), proves to be startling indeed. Painful complications ensue.

But Greenberg, whose previous output has primarily been for television, develops potentially fascinating storylines and characters in frustratingly two dimensional fashion. The actors cope as well as can be expected given the circumstances: What should be a big confrontational scene between Yoel and Fania is a particularly unfortunate misfire, coming to an abrupt halt just when sparks seem about to fly.

The temperature remains stubbornly tepid throughout, apart from some melodramatic interludes in which Yoel and his colleagues communicate with Austrian authorities via videolink (the plot revolves around the supposed location of a mass grave, on land earmarked for imminent development.) These sequences, conducted in stiffly "international" English, seek to inject a measure of courtroom-style excitement. But they seem primarily constructed to provide screen time for actors from production partner Austria, and various plot twists revealed therein are delivered in counterproductively ham-fisted style.

Greenberg and cinematographer Moshe Mishali pull off the occasional arresting image, such as the very first shot, in which Yoel traverses an ancient-looking stone bridge. Scenes featuring vast library shelves, meanwhile, play tricks of scale to subtly emphasize our hero's inconspicuous smallness within the larger mechanism of the Institute. The director's most successful creative flourish, however, involves the interpolation of actual interview footage with villagers from the scene of the crime(s), excerpted from Eduard Erne and Margareta Heinrich's 1994 Rechnitz documentary A Wall of Silence. Indeed, so clunky are its stabs at dramatization that The Testament itself might well have proved more suited to a nonfiction approach.

Production companies: Gum Films, Freibeuter Film
Cast: Ori Pfeffer, Rivka Gur, Hagit Dasberg Shamul, Ori Yaniv, Michael Fuith, Orna Rothberg, Daniel Adari
Director / Screenwriter: Amichai Greenberg
Producers: Yoav Roeh, Sabine Moser, Oliver Neumann
Cinematographer: Moshe Mishali
Production designer: Tamar Gadish
Costume designer: Sarit Sharara
Editor: Gilad Inbar
Composers: Marnix Veenenbos, Walter W Cikan
Casting directors: Esther Kling, Lisa Olah 
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Sales: Intramovies, Rome
In Hebrew, German, English, Yiddish
No Rating, 94 minutes