By Shlomo Porath
One of the most talked about Israeli films of the year, Samuel Maoz‘ Lebanon is on its way to the Venice film festival, to be followed by Toronto soon after. Yes, it is yet another major Israeli film dealing with the first Lebanon war. And yes- it would seem to be a bit late to the party, after the acclaim that Beufort received, and the even greater acclaim Waltz with Bashir received. But it is a very strong entry and seeing the three films as a triumvirate, has its own unique accomplishment to be proud of.
Strangely for a character-based war film, this film takes place entirely within a little over 24 hours. Based on real experiences of the director, it begins on June 6th, 1982 at 3 AM and ends in the early morning of June 7th. Herzl, Yigal and Assi are members of an IDF tank crew inside the South of Lebanon- they are the loader, driver, and commander, respectively. In their first scene, they are joined by Shmulik, a gunner. It doesn’t take long to figure out the dynamics of the crew: Herzl (Oshri Cohen) is the smart-ass with a problem with authority, Assi (Itay Tiran) is trying to assert himself while remaining friends with everyone, and Yigal (Michael Moshonov) just wants everyone to get along. Shmulik (Yoav Donat) is rather nervous about actually shooting people (he has no combat experience), something that leads to disastrous results during their first mission.
Once Shmulik is in that tank, so are we. With the exception of the opening and closing of the film, everything we see is from within the tank, either with the men, or through the sight they use to aim the guns. Certainly, it builds a very strong sense of claustrophobia throughout- even when we leave the inside of the tank to see what they are looking at (or aiming at) outside, it is very jerky, mechanical, and always with a crosshair. In a film with many notable achievements, the creation of the interior of that tank ranks right near the top. The man behind that is production designer Ariel Roshko, who, working with cinematographer Giora Bejach, did an amazing job of creating this entirely convincing interior, which very quickly becomes a very big character in the film. The work of these two artists is film craftsmanship at its best, and the film feels seamless, even though such a small set no doubt would have required a lot of effort to work in, having to move walls and other parts around to be able to get a camera and consistent lighting in there.
The next major character is introduced quickly and efficiently- Jamil (played by Eyes Wide Open star Zohar Strauss), the immediate commanding officer on the scene. He informs Assi that they have a very simple mission. A nearby town has been bombed by the Air Force. The tank, accompanied by paratroopers led by Jamil, is to go through the town in the morning to make sure it is clear, and to rendezvous at a friendly site called San-Tropez. Until the morning, they are to hold the road they are currently on. After some protestation about who’s going to stay up to watch the road, the crew (well, most of them) go to sleep…only to be awoken by a radio message from Jamil, saying there is a car coming towards them, and two use due procedure to stop them, and, if armed, neutralize them. The car comes up the road. Shmulik, frantically trying to aim, is ordered to shoot. He hesitates. When eventually he does shoot, it’s too late- the men, who now we see have machine-guns, have already left the car and are running into the trees nearby. Shmulik can’t see them, the paratroopers give chase. It only takes a few seconds…and there’s the call of a man down. The medic can’t do anything for him. Before Shmulik can even get through his feeble excuses for not being able to shoot- another vehicle comes down the road. Shmulik hesitates only briefly before shelling the vehicle- which turned out to be pick-up truck carrying live stock. We see the horribly injured driver only briefly, before Jamil shoots him in the head.
In this sequence, Maoz essentially pulls the rug out from under you. I’ve seen my fair share of chaotic war scenes. But the ferocity of this sequence still managed to shock me and got me to pay attention. It may not be reinventing the wheel, but it’s not just yet another ‘war-is-hell’ film. By the end of it, even Jamil’s horrifying coup-de-grace on the farmer feels utterly without any kind of political context. Like Katheryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (another superb current war-film, available on DVD), Lebanon is all about immediacy. Although it sounds like a contrivance to have a film set entirely within one cramped tank, I felt like I got a whole new visceral impression of combat through this film. After this sequence, a large portion of the film is spent in the town they’re supposed to clear, which they find themselves unable to easily exit.
The film is an aural experience as much as a visual one, as the sound design is absolutely critical in making this theoretical contrivance gain real heft. You feel every shell fired, every time the tank turns, the different kinds of terrain, the assault of wind and sound that comes with a helicopter being right on top of you…and that’s emblematic of what is so impressive about this film. So much of the craftsmanship on display is of the absolute highest standard. The production-design, construction, lighting, framing (there are some phenomenal close-ups), sound-design, and the make-up- it’s all tops. Even though it’s about five guys in tiny space- there is nothing minimalistic about the production values on display.
If there’s one element that is not as strong as other, it is that of the screenplay. It rings true, and hits its marks…but the impact of the film is in the execution. So although Maoz’ autobiographical writing may be a bit on the tame side, but his directing (on his first feature, no less) is superb, and the film achieves its personality by the meticulous attention paid to the details. The actors are quite adept at bridging the gap between the script and the execution, and are very good in the surroundings. In addition to the five leads mentioned above (all do fine work), Israeli-Arab actor Ashraf Barhom has the only other significant part, as a Christian Phalangist whom the crew is told will guide them out of the town to San-Tropez (which is mentioned as if it were a mythical land where there are no worries to be had).
This is one hell of a film, the best Israeli film I’ve seen so far this year. It is a fine representative of the local film industry, on a thematic level, as well as an aesthetic one.