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Time Out says
Tue May 11 2010Strange to say it, but ‘Lebanon’ is this week’s second-best Israeli film (see also ‘Eyes Wide Open'). It’s also the picture that won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, putting it up there with the likes of ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Rashomon’ and, more recently, ‘Vera Drake’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. The comparison may not be entirely fair, but such an award does raise expectations and it’s worth warning that while Samuel Maoz’s ‘Lebanon’ is to be recommended as a distinctive, personal memoir of what it was like to be a young, fearful soldier and inhabit the hellish confines of a tank during the 1982 Lebanon War, it’s also a patchy, difficult work that often feels oddly academic and distant rather than truly surprising and involving.
Which is not to say that ‘Lebanon’ isn’t an interesting experiment, not least in how to recreate war on a low budget and to avoid the predictable narratives, back stories and emotional flashpoints of so many conflict tales. Maoz plunges us straight into the action at 3am on June 6 1982, the first day of the Lebanon war as Israel invades its neighbour. The first and last shots of the film show us the exterior of the tank, but the rest of the narrative is set entirely within the vehicle, only showing us the situation outside through its periscope. As formal handcuffs go, these are tight – but I couldn’t help feeling that Maoz cheats at his own game a little. His viewfinder is strangely attuned to giving us emotive money shots, be they of a dying donkey’s nostrils still breathing or a naked woman running around among bombed-out ruins.
Inside the tank, though, his vision of hell is truly effective. Claustrophobia, part-knowledge, confrontation and an eerie sense of isolation are the name of the game as the tank encounters gun and rocket fire, negotiates a ruined town by day and night and suffers damage of increasing severity. Comradeship barely figures as the tank’s occupants – three young lads, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), under the command of the not-much-older Assi (Itay Tiran) – are driven by the individualism of fear. Heroism and self-sacrifice, so often the twin clichés of war films, are irrelevant. Barely emerging from the shadows, the four men negotiate smoke, oil, water and urine – not to mention an abundance of croutons (their issued snack) sprayed over the festering walls of the tank.
‘Lebanon’ is a film of randomly emerging episodes, some more successful than others. A sequence in which the tank confronts an armed man holding a family hostage feels contrived and designed too obviously as a moment of terror, while Yigal’s request that his superiors call his parents to assure them he’s safe feels similarly misjudged. Two stronger sequences stick in the mind: Shmulik’s inability to pull the trigger when faced with an enemy for the first time and the tank’s reckless, nocturnal drive through the city.
‘Lebanon’ treads similar territory to Ari Folman’s ‘Waltz with Bashir’, another work from a filmmaker who fought in the Lebanon War and is only now able to distil his memories into entertainment. But Maoz prefers straight, undignified reconstruction to telling a story through the prism of memory. His aim is admirable, his project intriguing and his film a fair testament to the nightmare of war – but it never feels as convincing or as suffocating as it should.
Author: Dave Calhoun