Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review - Lebanon

"War broke out in June of 1982. When I returned, my mother embraced me, weeping and expressing her gratitude to my deceased father, to God and to all who watched over me and returned me home safe and sound. At the time, she did not realise that I did not come home safe and sound. In fact, I did not come home at all. She had no idea that her son had died in Lebanon and that she was now embracing an empty shell".
– Samuel Maoz in the press notes for Lebanon.

Lebanon opens with a scene of beautiful serenity, as we gaze upon a brightly lit field of sunflowers under a cloudless summer sky. Enjoy this view, because it is the last time we'll be allowed to bask in the open air for the next ninety minutes. Aside from the opening and closing shots, Lebanon takes place entirely within the cramped confines of a tank. Largely based on director Samuel Maoz's own experiences, the film takes place on a single day and allows us to share this small space with four young Israeli soldiers. They have been ordered to drive into a town that has already been devastated by an aerial bombardment and help the ground troops inspect and clean out whatever remains. The men are uniformly anxious and unsure of what lies in their path, and they are about to embark on a hellish odyssey that they'll never forget.

Stories of innocent young men being corrupted and traumatised by warfare are nothing new in cinema, but Maoz's telling of the story gives it fresh juice. In restricting the film to the inside of the tank the director has crafted a claustrophobic atmosphere that amplifies the terror of the young recruits' situation, frequently using tight close-ups that invite us to see the fear in his characters' eyes. The stand-in for the director himself is Shmulik (Yoav Donat) who has the task of manning the tank's gun, and Maoz makes us feel the full weight of responsibility that this role entails. Shmulik is forced to make life-or-death decisions at various points in the film and he freezes early on, when he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger despite the frantic cries of his commanding officer. His hesitation costs lives, and when he does pull the trigger the next time he is called to do so, he discovers that he has opened fire on a civilian vehicle.

Maoz is not above using such cheap ironies, and one would certainly not describe his filmmaking as subtle. He constantly returns to the same tactic of showing us events through Shmulik's gun sight and having someone stare directly back at him – and, by extension, us – with a reproachful glare: "J'accuse!" Another scene finds the director cutting from blown apart bodies to lumps of meat hanging in a butcher's window, but while Lebanon may lack nuance and elegance at times, the film makes up for it with its sheer visceral impact. Technically, it is a tour de force, with Maoz showing marvellous ingenuity in the way he directs us around his limited location, ensuring the film doesn't grow visually dull or stuffy. Arik Leibovitch's editing draws incredible tension out of the film's various set-pieces, but it is the sound design that is perhaps the film's most crucial and impressive facet. The obvious touchstone is Das Boot, and Lebanon similarly takes advantage of our restricted viewpoint to suggest a constant sense of danger lurking on the other side of the walls. Planes roar overhead, bombs explode, guns fire and people scream, and all the while, the tank moans and rattles as it chugs further into the breach.

Sharing such close quarters as we do with these four men, we get to know them a little, but not well. Characterisation is limited and set out in swift, broad strokes; alongside Shmulik there's Asi (Itay Tiran) their indecisive leader, the pragmatic missile loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and Yigal (Michael Moshonov), whose thoughts continually drift to his family. Others enter the group's tank during the course of the picture, including their tough, no-nonsense commander Gamil (a superb Zohar Strauss), and a violent Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom) who comes bearing a hostage. In a chilling sequence, he tells his prisoner how he is going to tear his body apart slowly as soon as he has him alone, talking to him with a smile on his face and in a language that none of the Israelis can understand. When the Phalangist leaves the hostage tied up inside the tank the young Syrian pleads for his life with the four enemy soldiers, each of whom is as scared and bewildered as he is.

That is the strength of Lebanon. It doesn't draw distinctions between the soldiers fighting on either side of this conflict – indeed, it isn't even a film about this particular conflict at all. Instead, Maoz has made a picture that offers a universal portrait of what happens to young men when they are handed a gun and told to kill for their country. They are not defined by their nationality, race or religion; they are defined by their fear, their desperate desire to survive and – as evidence in a touching scene of connection between Shmulik and the Syrian captive – by their humanity. Eventually, Maoz takes his camera back outside the tank in the film's closing scene and allows us to come up gasping for air once more. The setting is the same field that we saw in the opening shot, but the sunflowers are now wilting instead of reaching for the sky, and the young men climbing out of that tank have been changed irrevocably.