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PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 3:45 pm 
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MICHAEL MOSHONOV

Visceral, but not the "best" of the Israel Lebanese war films

In the Variety review Derek Elley writes:

Visceral, torn-from-the-memory filmmaking that packs every punch except one to the heart, "Lebanon" is the boldest and best of the recent mini-wave of Israeli pics ("Beaufort," "Waltz With Bashir") set during conflicts between the two countries. Ironically, writer-director Samuel Maoz's pic, 99.9% of which is set within an Israeli tank, actually has the least to do with Lebanon per se.

The film is based on Maoz's own experience in the tank corps, the "proletariat" of the army, as he puts it, combined with an incident he knew about in which an Israeli tank got lost in a dangerous Syrian-controlled area.

"Viscceral" and "torn-from-memory" Lebanon definitely is, and it does pack "every punch except one to the heart." Why is that? Perhaps because the four young men and the others whom we encounter in the tank appear as the operation begins; it all takes place in a few hours, and there is no time to provide back-stories for trigger-shy rookie gunner Shmulik (Yuav Donat), crew leader Assi (Itay Tiran), obstreperous gun loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and terrified driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the crew; mean outside commander Jamil (Zohar Staruss); or their exhausted Syrian captive (Dudu Tassa); and the several others.

The film presents a concentrated and specific indictment of war through presenting innocent and unwilling young men who are unquestionably brave under fire, but doomed through ill fortune and inexperience in a dicey and deteriorating situation. Such an anti-war arc is more effectively used in Bernard Wicki's extraordinary 1959 German anti-war film Die Brücke, also about a doomed squad of young men. The difference is that a large early segment of Die Brücke is devoted to exploring the lives of each young man of an underage German late-WWII squad in detail before they come together, so we know very well who they all are and where they come from as one by one they meet their tragic fate. The effect is devastating in a way that the entrapment of a group of appealing but somewhat generic young Israelis can't quite be. The young actors are vivid and believable, though some of Maoz's writing, despite his personal experience (25 years ago) in the 1982 war, falls prey to clichés of the oversensitive rookie, the brusque superior officer, the insistence of bodily needs, and so on. A lot of the dialogue seems stagy, even though this staging trumps anything you could do in a theater.

Lebanon is nonetheless a superb piece of filmmaking and no mere tour de force, because it all takes place within a tank, but DP Giora Bejach, as Maoz puts it, was "two photographers," depicting the events inside but also shooting through the tank's sights so we see the world outside as the crew sees it, including several devastating scenes in which Lebanese civilians are ravaged, humiliated and killed -- in particular a mother (Raymonde Ansellem) keening over her dead little daughter whose dress catches fire, leaving her naked. This is far more shocking than any of the provocations in Lars von Trier's Antichrist, which seem contrived and calculated in comparison. Lebanon is very fine in its resolution of the problem of the claustrophobic setting.

The film exposes the Israeli violation of international law. The tank crew is told that a town has been bombed, and their job is to accompany troops who are going in to wipe out anyone left alive in it. The commander repeatedly orders the bomber to use white phosphorus bombs, but says they're illegal so they will call them "flaming smoke."

Action in the tank is specific and compelling. These guys are little more than boys. The newest member is the gunner. He admits he's shot only at "barrels" before this, and when the time comes to shoot, he can't pull the trigger, with disastrous results. What happens when you're in a tank and can't leave it, but it becomes disabled in enemy territory? In Lebanon you find out.

Nonetheless I differ with Mr. Elley's view that this film is superior to Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir, both of which provide a larger context on the war; the "visceral" vividness of the young men's experience doesn't compensate for this lack. On the other hand, despite the events' realistic "grunt's"-eye view of war, in which mysterious orders have to be clumsily obeyed without understanding the scheme of things, it's absurd and insensitive to say the film "has the least to do with Lebanon per se," and "The story could be set in any tank, any country." Mr. Elley seems to have forgotten about the Lebanese civilians as well as Arabic-speaking "terrorists" (the IDF term for the enemy) who are very vividly seen in this film, and not in the two others, both of which, however, are excellent films. They're all good, and all have severe shortcomings as views of the Lebanese war.

Maoz won the Golden Lion in Venice for this directorial debut. Sony will distribute the film in the US. Seen as a part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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