Strong and pointed as Susan Sontag’s intellect could be, she was sometimes undone by the trendiness of her topics. Case in point: Promised Lands, her unfocused documentary portrait of Israel during and immediately after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Sontag and a skeleton crew photograph this war-torn nation with a fashionable inquisitiveness—as if it’s the mod place for the intelligentsia to bear witness to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
Interview-wise, there’s some one-on-one bloviating with a writer (Yoram Kaniuk) and a physicist (Yuval Ne’eman), but the film largely lumbers between locales—the Wailing Wall; a barren desert littered with war dead—in a vain search for cohesion and profundity. Sontag occasionally trips into brilliance: A midfilm montage of exhibits in a government-sanctioned wax museum (featuring everything from the Eichmann trial to Golda Meir’s powwow with JFK) is a lacerating critique of official histories. And there’s a sickening sequence in a psychiatric ward where doctors re-create battlefield conditions for a shell-shocked soldier, with the intent of healing him.
Yet these are isolated moments of insight amid drudgery. Sontag’s true talent was for the printed word; behind the camera, her limitations come more harshly to light. Upon Promised Land’s release, she recounted her experiences in Vogue—an all-too-appropriate forum since her film is mostly chic posturing.—Keith Uhlich
Opens Thu; Anthology. Find showtimes