Drama exposes Invisible scars of rape

In nearly every frame, the intimate Israeli drama “Invisible” evokes the ominous feeling that an unseen threat lurks just off-screen.

However, the dangers that 40-something protagonists Lily and Nira experience are entirely in their heads. Cold as that may sound, it’s also accurate, for the rapes (and police interviews) that altered their lives, shattered their views of the world and continue to affect their relationships with relatives and strangers, happened three decades ago.

A carefully and thoughtfully structured exploration of the immediate and time-delay aftereffects of sexual violence, “Invisible” unfolds as an existential horror movie in which the monster never appears, except in glimpses of 30-year-old black-and-white video.

From “Invisible”

The provocative and rewarding Israeli drama, which categorically rejects the notion of letting bygones be bygones, screens four times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The subject of rape has rarely been addressed in Israeli movies, which seems strange for a country whose identity is so entwined with male strength and force. But instead of taking full advantage of poetic license for her fiction debut, director and co-writer Michal Aviad invokes the 1978 case of a Tel Aviv husband and father who raped at least 16 young women.

Aviad, a veteran documentary filmmaker who graduated from San Francisco State University and lived in the city in the 1980s, draws on her nonfiction roots by tethering Lily and Nira’s fictional relationship to the so-called “Polite Rapist,” even including audiotape recordings of two of his victims.

Aviad easily avoids sensationalizing or trivializing the real-life assaults, in part by giving “Invisible” a de-saturated, washed-out look that forces us to peer past the surface — and into Nira and Lily’s faces and actions — for clues and truths.

Lily and Nira are wounded and vulnerable people but, crucially, not always sympathetic. On good days, they’re tough; the rest of the time they’re hard and unapproachable.

The essence of the no-frills performances by the always-gutsy Ronit Elkabetz (as the married-with-older-children Lily) and the unexpectedly determined Evgenia Dodina (as single mom Nira) is to convey what it’s like to be alone in the world, as a woman and as a survivor of rape.

The possibility of male friendship doesn’t exist for them. Men are either sexual partners or sexual predators, and (with rare exceptions) casually ignorant misogynists.

Evidence of the latter is sprinkled through the film, providing a political comment on the male machismo that pervades most societies. The filmmaker goes further, though, linking the rape of women with the treatment of Palestinians in the territories.

This subtle but unmistakable thread plainly reflects Aviad’s personal view, but risks alienating viewers who don’t share her politics yet are concerned about the safety of women.

For all the tension that permeates “Invisible,” no violence is depicted. The film is concerned with psychological injuries rather than physical ones, and generates ample intensity on that basis.

Lily and Nira ultimately have to decide if catharsis is an option, and if a breakdown of their respective identities could lead to a breakthrough. The ending strains to avoid clichés or easy resolutions, an admirable goal but one that diminishes the film’s power.

Then again, Jewish audiences (and filmmakers) have had a lot of practice mulling the ways in which the past infects the present and can be prevented from poisoning the future. It’s one thing, though, for a viewer to grapple with the ongoing legacy of the Holocaust, and another to watch churning variations on grief, resentment, guilt, mistrust and anger in the modern Israeli setting of “Invisible.”

“Invisible” screens at 4:25 p.m. Saturday, July 21 at the Castro, 6:45 p.m. July 29 at the Roda, 8:30 p.m. July 30 at CineArts, and 6:45 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Rafael.