The Testament is a film about global and personal horrors and what makes us who we are. The fundamental questions at the heart of this Israeli film are certainly fascinating to explore. Any film would do well in wrapping around ideas like those in this film. However, the slippery slope is always in the execution. So, does The Testament unfold in a satisfying way or does it signal a rough road ahead?
Yoel (Ori Pfeffer) is a Holocaust scholar who is working on a special project that’s trying to locate a mass grave somewhere around the village of Lendorf in Austria. The Austrian government and the village are trying to expand. But Yoel’s continued efforts to find the gravesite thwarts new construction. However, after more than 20 attempts to find the site, Yoel has come up with nothing. The window to continue search is closing fast, but Yoel is determined to get to the truth he believes exists.
The Testament is one of those types of stories that could
work with little razzle-dazzle from the visuals.
The Testament centers around Yoel’s struggle to find the site. It starts in Jerusalem, at the high-tech facility where Yoel does his work. Writer/Director Amichai Greenberg unveils some gorgeous shots of the city, but otherwise doesn’t try anything interesting with the visuals. The film plays out almost like theater, heavy with dialogue in various languages, and short on cinematic movements. Is that a critique? It might be depending on what a viewer likes. Not every movie needs to involve brilliant camera work. Some stories lend themselves to simplicity.
The Testament is one of those types of stories that could work with little razzle-dazzle from the visuals. Such movies though really need to hit a home run with the pacing of dialogue and the reveal of new truths for the lead character. The Testament falters on that end. Yoel is often dry and unlikable. It’s hard to root for him at times and the film leaves a disconnect between the viewer and the character. Instead of drawing us into his world, Yoel keeps us at arm’s length.
The thrust of The Testament revolves around that gravesite, but finding it isn’t the entire point of the movie. The setup of the film clearly defines Yoel as a devout Jew, even wearing an untrimmed beard and payot (side curls). Yoel is strictly observant of Jewish traditions. And it’s during Yoel’s research that he happens upon a photo of his mother in a secret government file. As it turns out, Yoel’s mother wasn’t Jewish, meaning Yoel isn’t Jewish either. Or is he?
The identity crisis fractures Yoel, marking a turning point where the film becomes more poignant. Is devoted faith superseded by birthright? Is Yoel any less Jewish now that his bloodline doesn’t “officially” connect him? These are some heavy questions for the devout and even the non-religious to ponder.
In the end, The Testament doesn’t take those questions in directions that make it very fun to watch. Like Yoel, the film has a dryness to it that just keeps it distant. Perhaps for those closely connected to the religion, the film will have a deeper impact. The Testament is a lost opportunity to truly connect a wider audience with the universal question of what makes us who we are.