Beneath the surface

In Michal Aviad’s film ‘Invisible,’ great performances make a lasting impression.

Dodina 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dodina 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A literal-minded film by documentary director Michal Aviad, Invisible is a meditation on the long-term suffering of rape victims. It’s at its best when it gives its stars, two of Israel’s most accomplished actresses, Evgenya (Jenya) Dodina and Ronit Elkabetz (who is best known for The Band’s Visit), a chance to work together.
Dodina has the better-written role, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for moviegoers to see this Russianborn actress – who has won wide acclaim for her stage roles with the Gesher Theater – perform a lead role on the big screen. Dodina won the Best Actress Award at the Haifa International Film Festival for her role here, and the film won Best Israeli Feature there as well. When I think back to scenes in the movie, it’s Dodina who made the strongest impression, although she doesn’t get conventional big scenes where she gets to scream and chew the scenery. But she can express her heartbreak quietly in ways that are far more affecting than any hysteria would be.
The film opens with a title saying that the film is based on actual events that took place in the late 1970s. It starts in contemporary Tel Aviv, with Nira (Dodina) editing footage showing Israeli activists helping out Palestinians harvest olives. She and the French director of the film she is working on go into the field, and there she notices Lily (Elkabetz), one of the activist leaders. Nira recognizes Lily as one of the other victims of the serial rapist known in the media as the polite rapist, who terrorized central Israel in the late 1970s. Nira utters the title phrase of the film to Lily, which would translate roughly in English to “There’s no sign of it on you” (“Lo ro’im alayich”).
The point that Aviad makes throughout the film is that while there are no outward signs of the trauma these women suffered, and while their suffering is invisible to society in general and their families in particular, they are utterly changed by the rape. Their lives are outwardly normal, but they haven’t lived these lives in spite of the crime. It is the crime that has defined their lives and is present in every move they make.
As the film progresses, the two characters form an uneasy alliance.Nira decides suddenly that she wants to delve into all the details of the crime, from looking up the police file of her testimony to reading old newspaper accounts of the crimes. She keeps turning to Lily, looking for an ally. Lily rebuffs her at first but is eventually drawn in, and the bonding scenes between the two are the most interesting part of the film. If you’ve ever had a friend whom you got to know under trying circumstances, you’ll understand the gallows humor the women share.
If the film were essentially a character study of these two and the friendship that develops between them, it would probably have worked beautifully. But Aviad can’t seem to decide whether she wants the film to be about their inner lives or the politics of rape and oppression. Should rapists get harsher sentences? Should the criminal justice system show more compassion toward the victims? The film gets bogged down in these questions, which lower its quality from a work of art to a movie-of-the-week at times.
There is a certain soap opera feeling to the scenes involving Lily and her family. Her marriage to her husband (Gil Frank) is failing, and the bickering among these two and their children is not compelling, although it may be realistic. The scenes that show Nira, a single mother who has never really had a serious, longterm relationship with a man, are far more understated and effective. When Nira can’t sleep and snuggles next to her sleeping daughter, it speaks volumes about who she is and her struggles.
The political analogy between the violence against the Palestinian olive harvesters and the rape victims is murky and undeveloped.
While it’s clear that Lily seems to feel she is taking back some measure of control she lost in the rape by working to help Palestinians, this subplot seems forced.
In the end, you will learn more about the trauma of rape and powerlessness by just looking into Dodina’s eyes than by any political references.