Home Entertainment ‘Shikun’ Review: Amos Gitai Channels Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’ in His Scattered Critique of...

‘Shikun’ Review: Amos Gitai Channels Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’ in His Scattered Critique of Israel

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A loose adaptation of absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” director Amos Gitai’s “Shikun” unfolds in a multi-use housing project, where it follows the stream-of-consciousness travails of a diverse cross-section of characters in Be’er-Sheva, Israel.

Bound by the French-language narration of Irène Jacob — a one-woman Greek chorus and de-facto liaison between sides of the fourth wall — the film embodies the struggle to reconcile learned anger with calls for peace, and it takes several steps to the left of the distant, “kumbaya” observationalism of some of Gitai’s previous work (like “Tramway in Jerusalem”). However, despite its refreshing political outlook, “Shikun” is anything but radical in execution, and it’s rarely interesting to watch.

Echoes of “Rhinoceros” remain in Gitai’s transposition from a small French town to an Israeli building and bus station. The play saw numerous characters transform into rhinoceroses while others around them remained indifferent, a mass metamorphosis that mirrored the rise of Nazi fascism before World War II. However, the film’s approach to this “rhinocerization” — a term for nationalistic fervor that, as it happens, became popular in Israel after Ionesco’s play — ends up surprisingly slight.

A few scattered references to fears of rhinos outside the building’s walls give the unseen creatures a distinct political meaning (they appear to represent fears of the Palestinian “other”), though all that remains of the concept on-screen is an Arab resident wrapping a homemade rhino horn around her head as Jacob looks on.

Jacob and other performers speak of these rhinoceroses with hesitance, constantly afraid of how they’ll be perceived, but these political musings rarely coalesce, even in the abstract. While magnetic in spurts, the aesthetic approach is seldom as lurid or unsettling as a translation of Ionesco deserves. The film’s performances are visceral, and its politics overt, but as a singular piece, it feels staggered.

Lengthy shots push in and out of hallways, switching focus between various characters and taking numerous detours to track both longtime residents and newcomers who have settled from other countries. There’s remarkable coordination involved (one of these shots lasts about 20 minutes, nearly a quarter of the movie’s runtime), and the score by Alexsey Kochetkov and Louis Sclavis often verges on hypnotic, but little by way of the film’s visual expression helps its political musings transcend the clunkily literal, despite its attempts at abstraction.

In adapting “Rhinoceros,” the film (made before Oct. 7 and the subsequent military response) overtly draws a connection between Nazism and IDF oppression in Gaza, though in order to do so, it circumvents the oblique absurdism in which it trades for most of its runtime, as though it were simply giving up on using surrealism for political critique.

It makes numerous fleeting references to caged peoples nearby, and it floats the same lingering questions Gitai broached in his documentary short “Letter to a Friend in Gaza” (some characters in “Shikun” all but quote the Haaretz piece that inspired it, “’I Was Just Following Orders’: What Will You Tell Your Children?”). But these exchanges, usually between characters walking from one place to the next, offer little by way of either moral complexity or probing scrutiny.

The camera, in its ambitious hurry to capture a wide cross section of people and cultures, rarely slows down to observe the doubts or convictions of any one of them. That the building’s birthright visitors hail from both Russia and Ukraine hints at a knowing irony, albeit one the movie quickly moves on from, rather than folding into its political purview.

Jacob’s committed physical performance as the narrator (she either traipses rhythmically around the set or writhes in anguish) is the closest thing “Shikun” has to an aesthetic embodiment of some kind of perspective, conflicted or otherwise. Despite great efforts to make the film feel fluid and alive, its ideas are equally well-expressed in your average op-ed, which ought to take far less time to read.