"I should have worn a hat," sings Leon Klinghoffer (Sanford Sylvan) to his wife shortly before his death. He sits in his wheelchair on the deck of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, wondering what happens next, and worrying about sunburn on his balding head. It's a touching moment, because anybody going into The Death of Klinghoffer knows what happens next: Klinghoffer is shot in the head and thrown overboard, making a middle-aged American on a Mediterranean vacation into a symbol for a sad and endless conflict.

Penny Woolcock's film is based on modern composer John Adams' 1991 opera, which in turn was inspired by the Achille Lauro affair, which took place over three tense days in October 1985. (In an odd resonance, the San Francisco screening took place the day after the real hijacking's ringleader, Abu Abbas, was captured in Baghdad.) As a movie, it's not fully successful: Dramatic opera staging and dramatic filmmaking aren't the same thing, and Klinghoffer often drags. It can only move as fast as the music, and Adams is a composer focused on slow, swimming paces. Yet Woolcock mostly makes the film work visually - she's excellent at the pointed close-up and frenzied camera movements, especially as we follow the terrorists' lives in flashbacks. In the poverty-stricken camps in which they grew up, we see the turmoil and anger that drives their lives into violent fundamentalism. Mamoud (Kamel Boutros) carries the key of his childhood home, from which he was evicted when it became part of the state of Israel.

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