The documentary “Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations” begins with a voice-over, as the television star Julianna Margulies (who is Jewish), explains that anti-Semitism infects like a virus and spreads globally in a constant search for a new host. It’s a rich metaphor, particularly given that images of infestation have long been used as weapons against Jewish communities. But the film never explicitly places its central image within that history, and this lack of analysis continues to frustrate even when the film hits on resonant ideas.
The director, Andrew Goldberg, breaks up his study into four sections, each focusing on attacks from a different quarter. Goldberg identifies these sources as the far right in the United States; the far left in Britain; anti-Semitic governments in Hungary; and Islamic extremists in France.
The film is a journalistic undertaking, with appearances by academics, politicians, writers and members of Jewish communities who each comment on current affairs. Survivors of violence against Jews describe the loss of loved ones; anti-Semitic political candidates defend their racist worldviews. These passages are compelling as qualitative research, using individual stories as a way to show the causes and effects of racism.
But the film’s journalistic ambitions suffer from a lack of historical depth, with complicated subjects like the Israelis and Palestinians given analytical short shrift. Clips from political rallies are played out of context, revolutionary language is translated without its figurative meaning. Even recent events get little more than a gloss, as when Goldberg chooses to include politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton as neutral talking heads, without accompanying their appearances with commentary on their records or motivations.
The trouble with this skimmed approach is that by sidelining historical analysis, the film denies its audience the best defense against distortion, a rational necessity when interpreting a conversation that often seems to happen in code.
Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes.