Entering the the mind of a killer

Yehuda Nahari Halevi plays the man who killed Israel's President Yitzhak Rabin in a new film. Anne Joseph asked him how he inhabited the role of an assassin


The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin nearly 25 years ago, is a definitive moment in Israel’s history and also, for many, one of the most traumatic. The bullets, fired by ultra-nationalist law student Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995, eliminated all hope of peace.

Although the murder has been the subject of several documentaries, it is not until now that it has formed the basis of a feature film. Incitement — directed by American-Israeli, Yaron Zilberman and co-written by Ron Leshem (Beaufort) — is a psychological thriller which chronicles the events in the year preceding the assassination and examines the political, religious and personal forces that influenced and inspired Amir, from his point of view.

Nominated for 10 Ophir awards, including best actor for Yehuda Nahari Halevi (Wedding Doll) who plays Amir, the film won the Ophir for Best Picture and, as a result, will be Israel’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Meticulously researched using unpublished psychiatric evaluations of Amir and more than 100 hours of telephone conversations with him in prison, as well as meetings with his family, Incitement is a highly disturbing portrait of a political killer. Following its well-received world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last month, it will be screening at the London Film Festival in mid-October.

Speaking on the phone from Tel Aviv, Halevi explains that he is from the same neighbourhood (Neve Amal) as Yigal Amir and comes from a similar background. The experience assisted in his portrayal of the assassin. “I’m also from a religious, Yemenite family so I have the tools — the body language, the accent and the mannerisms. It helped me a lot, but it is,” he emphasises, “the opposite of who I am now.”

He held back from telling Zilberman that he came from the same community and knew members of Amir’s family, although not Amir, until he had the part. “I didn’t want to influence Yaron or for him to think I was being pushy,” he says modestly.

He was only ten when Rabin was murdered and recalls seeing the news report on the TV but little of his reaction to it. “I don’t remember how it influenced me but I do remember that it was a huge deal in the neighbourhood.”

Considering Yigal Amir is a controversial figure in Israel, did he ever question taking the role? “No. Never,” Halevi says quickly. “I never doubted it. It comes with a lot of responsibility, of course, but how could I turn it down? It was fascinating to just let myself go, be led by Yaron and think, OK, I’m giving myself to this process.”

Halevi gives a commanding and mesmerising performance, which explores Amir’s delusional and fanatical descent with chilling accuracy. He says he approached the role from a method acting perspective. “I dived in, became religious and lived that world again — even though it’s not my cup of tea. In order for me to understand how he thought, Yaron threw a lot of information at me: videos, reading material, everything that polluted and pushed him to do this action. I was fed so much information that at some point I became Yigal.”

For the entire filming period, which was almost a year, Halevi says he was totally immersed as Amir, even calling Zilberman at one point to tell him that he understood everything and knew what he needed to do to save the Israeli nation.

“I was so passionate. I thought I had the answers.”

It was, he admits, a little scary but he never thought that he was going to lose himself. “It’s a once in a lifetime to do this kind of character.”

Incitement is at the London Film Festival on October 12 and 13.

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