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BERLINALE 2024 Berlinale Special

Review: Shikun


- BERLINALE 2024: Amos Gitai navigates the intricacies of modern Israeli society through a theatrically staged introspection reimagining Eugene Ionesco’s anti-totalitarian fable Rhinoceros

Review: Shikun
Irène Jacob in Shikun

In his latest endeavour, Shikun, Israeli director Amos Gitai reimagines Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros, setting it within the confines of a mixed-use building. The setting is both deliberate and symbolic, with the title Shikun – meaning "social housing" in Hebrew – serving as a canvas against which the divisions in contemporary Israeli society are explored. Gitai’s selection of this title over the alternative that he had been considering, It's Not Over Yet, signals his aim to provide both a sanctuary from and a contemplation of the invading authoritarian ideologies symbolised by the film’s metaphorical pachyderms.

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Shikun, screening in Berlinale Special, emerges against a backdrop of significant turmoil in Israel (the film was made before the 7 October attack), amid widespread protests against government reforms and the rise of a conformist society. Gitai's objective was to confront the sociopolitical upheavals of his era head-on. By drawing parallels with Ionesco’s anti-totalitarian fable, Gitai constructs a story with its setting – a sprawling, Le Corbusier-inspired building in Be'er-Sheva – serving as a character in itself, in which the varied micro-stories of its residents intertwine. The architectural design of the building enables the coexistence of diverse segments of Israeli society, highlighting both the solidarity and the dissonance between them.

Gitai's latest work is theatrical not only in its thematic borrowing from Ionesco’s play, but also in its formalism. French-Swiss actress Irène Jacob features as the leading narrator, adopting the role of a one-woman chorus who frequently breaks the fourth wall. Instead of a coherent narrative design, Gitai opts for a series of fragmented and fragmentary scenes, and almost stream-of-consciousness digressions, referring to sociopolitical shifts. The metaphorical rhinoceroses, which are never seen but only rhetorically alluded to, symbolise the magnetic pull of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, the series of monologues serve to advocate for resistance and defiance, cautioning against fear as a constructed and manipulated emotion.

The film's cinematic distinction stems from the cinematography of Eric Gautier, who previously collaborated with Gitai on A Tramway in Jerusalem [+see also:
film review
interview: Amos Gitai
film profile
. The first third of the film is particularly striking, captured in a fluid, gliding, single shot. The technique is not sustained throughout, as Gitai shifts the focus to a stationary camera that concentrates more on the characters' faces or the spaces in the case of collective scenes. A further aesthetic transition occurs when the setting moves from the building to an abandoned, cavernous bus station, imbued with a post-apocalyptic vibe. Within this underground setting, the political commentary of Shikun assumes a more alarming gravitas, even as the characters are seen repetitively circling around on electric scooters.

Shikun is a formally captivating cine-theatrical work, with Yuval Orr and Simon Birman’s editing maintaining engagement beyond the initial single-shot sequence. Gitai navigates the intricacies of conformity and resistance within the contexts that society occupies, both physically and metaphorically. The film is imbued with a dynamic and declamatory style that sustains the viewer’s attention, particularly evident in Irène Jacob’s crescendoing proclamations. Despite eschewing a conventional plot and a story arc, Gitai maintains the film's momentum, not only drawing on Ionesco, but also referencing a variety of other sources. Having said that, many references may not fully resonate with audiences unfamiliar with the local context.

Shikun was produced by AGAV Films (France), Recorded Picture Company (UK), CDP (France), Elefant Films (Switzerland), Ventre Studio (Brazil), United King Films (Israel), GAD Fiction (France), Intereurop (France) and Free Studios (Switzerland). Visit Films handles its world sales.

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