The only authoritative voice of Israeli filmmaking prior to the recent influx of micro-masterpieces — let’s see if it constitutes a “wave” — Amos Gitai has had a rocky time of it. He’s dared to iron-maiden his audience with hyper-long one-shot sequences and elaborate camera roamings, he’s seduced Natalie Portman into doing an Israeli film right after “Closer” and the second “Star Wars” prequel, he’s made “Kippur” (2000), an indisputable home run that explored the soldier’s experience of the Yom Kippur War. On the other hand, and at the same time, many of his films have been broad, goonish and didactic, and for the most part, his approach toward the Palestinian question has been to not have one. His new film, “One Day You’ll Understand,” is an all-French probing of the Euro-legacy of the Holocaust, so Gitai has again avoided his own nation’s actions in a post-Holocaust world. But it is at the same time his best movie — it’s as if hanging with all of these French heavyweights (stars Jeanne Moreau, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, cinematographer Caroline Champetier) slowed him down and sobered him up. The movie is something of a haunting itself, deliberately as elusive and elliptical as the past, slipping away as it is with the last survivors of the ’40s.
The first shot is symptomatic: we track along with a raincoated businessman (Girardot) across a small urban square, a wall passes between us, then another, and this one is covered in carved names, too many to read, and then we meet him again in what is the new Holocaust Memorial in Paris, commemorating the Jews deported to the Nazi camps with the French government’s collusion. This sense of lingering guilt and rot pervades the film, and Gitai keeps his camera moving, constantly following characters but being separated from them by walls and partitions of all kinds. Girardot’s visit to the Parisian wall to touch a name is, we figure out much later, a flash-forward; next, we see it is 1987, the Klaus Barbie trial is enveloping the news in France, and Girardot’s brooding lawyer is trying to decipher a mystery: what exactly had happened to his maternal grandparents, Russian émigrés who disappeared into the camps, while all his life his mother has said nothing about it, and had in fact raised him and his sister (Dominique Blanc) Catholic.
The mystery eventually gives way to consideration of the last days of Moreau’s elderly, evasive, cosmopolitan mother, and in the meantime, Gitai fashions a series of breathtaking one-shot set-pieces: a tour of a village hotel that harbored the lost grandparents, floor to floor, room to room, given by a local man who remembers the war; a wake gathering in which Girardot’s benumbed son paces and rehearses his eulogy with considerable ambivalence; a late patrol around an office in which Girardot distractedly explores with two Holocaust-compensation lawyers how much his dead family was worth materially; and so on.
The mise-en-scène is never ostentatious or unnecessary; the movement and framing provides a kind of ongoing color-commentary to the action. Gitai’s film (the French title of which translates simply to “Afterwards”) treats time like a dream — years pass in a cut, 1987 gives way to 1995 to 2005 — and though the characters’ lives are not divulged to us in detail, the acting is mesmerizing. Nobody explodes, which makes the pressurized control of Girardot and Blanc all the more affecting. Moreau, of course, is in an iconic class by herself, not acting so much as simply defining her place in the last half-century of international culture. Gitai’s expressive, restless camera all but steals the show, though, even in the final shot, a declarative j’accuse aimed at the heart of France that is undoubtedly justified but also suggests that Gitai has some homeward-looking work to do about the reality of his native land.