Four and a half stars
Written and directed by Samuel Maoz. Hebrew title: Levanon. 92 minutes. In Hebrew, check with theaters about subtitle information
When I read that Shmuel Maoz's Lebanon (which was just released all over Israel) would be showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, I had to drag myself to see it. After all, in the past few years, there have been two brilliant and very different Israeli films about the Israeli presence in Lebanon, Joseph Cedar's Beaufort and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. What was left to say?
When Lebanon ended, I had to drag myself out of the seat. It turned out that there was so much still say, and that Samuel (Shmuelik) Maoz managed to say it in such a viscerally effective way, it was hard for me to stand up afterwards. There are many movies that wallow in the violence and chaos of war, and there are the very rare movies that give you insight into the experience of actually fighting in a war. Lebanon is one of the latter. But the film was not simply a bombardment of the horrors of war (although there are horrific scenes of violence) but a meticulously constructed exploration of the chaos and carnage that are part and parcel of any military campaign. Lebanon has touched viewers around the world - it won the Golden Lion, the top prize at this year's Venice film festival - not because the jury there was especially concerned with the politics and history of the particular war it depicts, but because they appreciated Maoz's success at bringing us inside this war. Maoz, who has directed documentaries but who had never before made a feature film, brilliantly conveys struggle of these young men against a world utterly without compassion. That story has been told before, but I can't think of when it has been told better.
As I watched, I realized that the mood of the film reminded me of another film, a totally unrelated genre thriller, Open Water. That movie is about a yuppie couple who go on a holiday scuba diving expedition, and, because of a series of mistakes, end up being left alone in shark-infested waters, where they die. Although the two movies couldn't be more different, they share a certain core similarity: the isolation of the main characters and the threat they face. In one film, they're lost in a vast ocean, in the other, they get stuck in a tank in enemy territory, but the terror is the same. So is that creeping feeling of doom, as they gradually realize that nobody is coming to the rescue.
The cast features some of the same actors from Beaufort - Oshri Cohen and Itay Turan - but adds Michael Moshonov and Yoav Donat to the tank crew. We see the landscape of Lebanon through the point of view of these characters, and it is filmed with devastating effectiveness. Two more characters get added to the mix: a prisoner who is put aboard for reasons that are unclear, and Gamil (Zohar Strauss), an officer who gets on and off. The oddly malevolent Gamil is a strange and scary character. While all the actors in this ensemble film are excellent, it's Strauss as the scarily stressed commander who is the standout. Ashraf Barhoum, an Israeli actor who has gone on to appear in Hollywood films such as The Kingdom, is also good as a member of a Lebanese militia who may or may not be trustworthy. Reymond Amsalem is the only woman in the film, playing a terrified civilian in a village that has been destroyed. Her scene forms the film's horrific centerpiece.
The weakest parts of the movie are the typically banal banter when each character gets a chance to talk about himself. Maoz tries to avoid that pitfall (which was the weakest part of Beaufort and Bashir as well) by having one of the soldiers tell an off-color story about having been seduced by a teacher, but it still barely distracts from the threat the soldiers face.
Maoz's audacious use of the point of view of the trapped soldiers and his command of (for lack of a better phrase) film language is extraordinary. The opening and closing shots are especially brilliant and say so much in just a few seconds.
Lebanon is not an easy film to watch, but it is a movie that you will never forget once you see it.