BEAUFORT 4.5 stars Directed by Joseph Cedar. Written by Cedar and Ron Leshem. (125 min.) In Hebrew, though some prints have English titles. Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, the story of the last Israeli soldiers stationed at Lebanon's Beaufort Castle in 2000, is Israel's first great war movie. Of course, there have been other war movies made here, some good, but Beaufort has a scale and intensity never seen before. The movie, which except for a few moments is set entirely in the Beaufort Castle outpost, conveys the claustrophobia and terror of being there, as well as the vulnerability of the soldiers and the bravado they use to mask it, as few war movies ever have.
Cedar's time of favor
The soldiers are portrayed by an outstanding ensemble cast as flawed human beings, neither heroes nor victims. Cedar draws us into their lives, so that when the missiles fired by a faceless enemy land on the outpost, they feel so close it's hard not to flinch. It's a movie that will resonate with audiences in Israel and abroad - a prediction which was brought home when the movie won the Best Director prize at the Berlin International Film Festival last month.
The screenplay is based on Ron Leshem's Sapir Prize-winning novel, If There is a Heaven, but the film, for which Leshem and Cedar collaborated on the screenplay, is a thoroughly cinematic experience. It is based on the true stories of the Beaufort soldiers but is a fiction film, not a docu-drama. Although it is hard to watch the movie without thinking about the Lebanon wars, this is much more than a political critique of Israeli policy, although it clearly shows how the soldiers feel they have been abandoned.
"If we're retreating, let's go. And if we're staying, let us do our job," Liraz (Oshri Cohen), the 22-year-old commander of Beaufort tells the high-ranking officers who helicopter in at one point. But the officers, who show genuine concern for the soldiers, can offer no solution other than telling the troops to stay put a little longer.
The beauty of the film is in how it conveys exactly what staying put in such a situation entails. The soldiers at Beaufort, all in their late teens or early twenties, don't quite understand how they got there. The rambunctious, profane Zitlaui (Itay Turgeman, who played the draft-dodging soccer star in Beitar Provence), when asked whether he is there by mistake or whether he wanted to be in Beaufort, replies: "I wanted to be here. That was the mistake."
The plot is driven not by political developments but by how the characters respond to the prospect of leaving, and the all-too-frequent casualties among their friends. "You stand there like an idiot and get hit by a missile," one of them complains. Of course, on one level, they all want to leave as soon as possible. But Liraz in particular has mixed feelings.
"Liraz is exactly what we need here right now," comments Koris (Itay Turan), one of his fellow soldiers. "Someone who can't believe they gave him the job."
For such a young man to shoulder this responsibility, he has to take his mission seriously - so seriously that it's hard for him to let go when it's time to withdraw.
Few films have examined the tremendous burdens placed on the youngest soldiers as incisively as Beaufort. There is relatively little dialogue throughout the film's two-hour running time, but the look on Liraz's face when he has to make up a schedule for guarding a watchtower where one of his friends has just been killed speaks volumes about the tragedy, not only of Lebanon, but of all soldiers who die young.
Another critical theme in the film is how the soldiers cope with fear. Mostly, they simply deny it, and even in the most nerve-wracking situations struggle to seem upbeat. Even their cynicism seems like a mask for anxiety rather than a well-reasoned point of view. The story of Ziv (Ohad Knoller), a slightly older soldier who comes to defuse a bomb on the road, explores this theme deeply. The more mature Ziv understands the danger he faces, but won't let anything distract him from his nerve-wracking mission.
The complex relationship of soldiers stranded in this ancient Crusader fort, where they are easy targets, to those they left behind in Israel is expressed mostly in moments when they view television news. In a stunning scene, the father of a soldier who has just been killed is interviewed, and says he doesn't blame the army or the government for his son's death, but himself. The interviewer wants to know why, and he explains that he should have "instilled a sense of fear" in his son.
Cedar isn't looking for easy answers, and doesn't offer any. His directorial technique and vision turn what could be a talky, static film into a gripping cinematic experience. In many shots, the lush beauty of the landscape (the movie was filmed at the Crusader fortress Kalat Namrud, close to the Lebanese border) is contrasted with the fraying squalor of the concrete-block outpost. At moments, the soldiers' bulky camouflage gear is photographed to look like the chain mail of the medieval knights who built Beaufort. These touches, like the naturalistic ensemble acting of the young cast, don't call attention to themselves, but build the atmosphere and drama.
The look and detail of the film feel accurate. Particularly impressive are the explosions and simulated missile fire, which add to the realism.
The weaker moments come when the soldiers' backstories are revealed. Anyone who has ever seen a war movie will wonder whether when a soldier talks about his girlfriend or ambitions, it means he will be the next to die. This is the only time when the film begins to resemble a standard war movie.
While the performances are all excellent, the most weight rests on Oshri Cohen's shoulders, and in some of the quieter scenes he has a difficult time conveying the range the role requires, but he quickly gets back on track. Ohad Knoller, who starred in Eytan Fox's The Bubble and Yossi & Jagger, is particularly strong as Ziv from the bomb squad.
Cedar displayed a great deal of talent in his previous films, Time of Favor (Ha'hesder) (2000) and Campfire (Medurat Ha'shevet) (2004). In the far more ambitious Beaufort, he has fulfilled the promise of those earlier works, and then some.