One can see the difference between the two traumatized main female characters right in their faces. Lily’s (Ronit Elkabetz) oval face and high cheekbones exude a hardness totally befitting a strong and impassioned political activist who, in the course of Michal Aviad’s Invisible, finds herself wrestling with mental scars she had long repressed. Nira’s (Evgenia Dodina) visage, meanwhile, is a bit wider and more open, which suits her more emotionally impulsive character. Even their hairstyles give off visceral indications of their respective characters: Lily’s is long, black, and straight, while Nira’s is curly, light brown, and frizzled. It’s a brilliant bit of physical casting that adds a certain level of visual interest to a film that’s otherwise fairly light on purely image-based pleasures (though cinematographer Guy Raz does get reasonably handsome and sometimes menacing mileage out of low-lit interiors and night-time scenes). Thankfully, the film compensates in other ways.
Both of these seemingly disparate types are united by a common tragedy that occurred more than 20 years ago: They were both victims of a serial rapist the Israeli media dubbed “The Polite Rapist” on account of the slow-burning way in which he led on his targets. Invisible picks up both of these characters at troubled points in their lives—especially so in the case of Lily, who’s trying to keep her marriage from falling apart. Nira is a documentary filmmaker who’s in the midst of shooting her latest film when she randomly comes upon Lily, who’s trying to help Palestinians harvest olives. When Nira realizes why she looks so familiar to her, she confronts Lily directly. This attempt at direct connection brings up a whole host of buried traumas that both of these characters deal with in different ways: Nira throws herself into finding out what happened to the rapist, while Lily finds herself fighting to keep those painful repressed memories buried within her. For Lily, it’s ultimately a losing battle; the memories begin to seep into her daily life, adversely affecting her already tenuous bonds with her husband and children.
Inevitably, the two women eventually forge a real emotional bond. It doesn’t come easily, however, and one of the strong points of Aviad’s film is how carefully it chronicles the formation of this bond between these sensitively drawn characters. Nira’s quest to discover what happened to the Polite Rapist is alternately poignant and unsettling; when a cop asks her why she’s so intent on finding out what happened to him, Nira is at a loss as to how to answer that understandable question. Early on, after she’s reached out to Lily, she calls her constantly and keeps her up to date on her progress, even though we can tell Lily would rather not hear about it. Eventually Lily willingly relents, but, under Aviad’s omniscient stance, the slightly disturbing undercurrents of Nira’s obsessiveness remain.
Nira’s vocation as a documentary filmmaker is also significant, both subtly and overtly. Aviad herself has previously been known as primarily a documentarian herself, and this latest film of hers throws in nonfictional elements into her largely fictional brew: It’s not only based on real events (an actual serial rapist that targeted 16 women and girls in the Tel Aviv area in 1977 and ’78), but also features actual footage of some of those real-life victims being interviewed (Aviad organically weaves this interview footage into the film’s world by having Nira watch it on a monitor in her editing studio). Nira even goes so far as to track down another victim and interview her, though she respects her wishes and turns the camera away from the victim’s face, recording only her voice. When, late in the film, Nira, with Lily’s encouragement, decides to turn her amassed footage into a film about the Polite Rapist, another of the film’s themes emerges: the possibilities, and maybe even the limits, of cinema as a tool for personal exorcism. Is cinema itself a potentially useful tool in dealing with the past, as Nira implicitly believes?
None of these ideas feel unduly heavy-handed; instead, Aviad trusts the audience to pick up on them in the context of her narrative, preferring to involve us in convincing human drama rather than shoving her concerns in our faces. Aviad reserves arguably her boldest gambit for its final scene, in which Aviad, with a poetic final shot and a sudden cut to black, deliberately halts a rush of narrative momentum toward a potentially volatile confrontation that is, at the very least, never shown. It’s a calculated bit of ambiguity that may jar and dissatisfy in the moment, but the implications of the moment linger in the mind. Is a moment of moral clarity for both of these characters also possibly a denial of humanity? For all the footage in the world, the Polite Rapist remains as invisible to Lily and Nira as they both undoubtedly were to him about 20 years ago.