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Going to hell in close quarters


William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous declaration, “War is hell,” long ago became a historical commonplace, but Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon revivifies it with blunt force and appalling details. This Israeli film is also preeminently a striking tour de force, a masterful formalist achievement. It is a war film, but one that plays out on a scale that’s singular. Almost all of Lebanon is set inside the very cramped confines of an army tank. What Maoz has accomplished working within these severe spatial limitations is remarkably impressive, an accomplishment that’s both aesthetic and emotional. Whether his film succeeds more broadly and deeply is a question that’s a little more difficult to answer.

Lebanon’s stark, violence-punctuated narrative takes place over one day, June 6, 1982, the day Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had taken refuge there after being forcefully expelled from Jordan by that country’s King Hussein. The film begins abruptly, without preparatory information, as Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the new gunner, lowers himself into the tank’s darkness from above.

The four-man crew are citizen-soldiers, young men doing their required military service, apparently ill-informed about war aims, geo-politics, or even what their role is. They will very soon be in the thick of things, but they lack any real context to process all that. Jamil (Zohar Shtrauss), the hard-bitten major who periodically drops into the tank—code-named Rhino—to give them orders, tells the uneasy, puzzled men that they‘re to advance with the squadron assembled outside the tank to a town called San Tropaz. This will be, he assures, them, “a walk in the park.” The Israeli air force has already leveled much of the town and the tank crew’s job is to continue through it, cleaning up remnants of resistance.

Things go horribly wrong almost as soon as they set out. Shmulik panics, his trigger finger freezing, as a pickup carrying Arab fighters attacks, and the first Israeli casualties are incurred. When Rhino reaches the town, amid horrific scenes of civilian carnage—viewed only through Shmulik’s telescopic gunsight—the men inside become more confused and disoriented. They’re separated from Jamil and their unit, uncertain even about how to exit the town.

All of this is experienced only from inside Rhino; neither the crew, the camera, nor we leave its interior. We’re connected to the events outside only via sounds—including rounds fired at, and sometimes hitting, the tank—radio transmissions, and Shmulik’s gunsight. Except for visits from Jamil, and from one of two vaguely menacing Christian falangists allied with Israel—typically the crew members don’t seem to know what a falangist is—who are supposed to lead the tank to safety, there is no direct contact with fellow soldiers.

Maoz has undertaken, in effect, an experiment that probes the limits of cinema by stringently inhibiting its spatial ambit. But in so limiting his own access to the usual kind of visual opportunities, Maoz has intensified his and our cinematic experience; he’s refined it. It’s a small revelation to find out how much drama and visual interest this first-time feature director has been able to create working in such close quarters.

Presumably by coincidence, both the New Yorker’s David Denby and J. Hoberman at the Village Voice have characterized Lebanon as a kind of meeting of French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre and 1950s American B-movie director Sam Fuller. Fuller may be apposite, but I thought I detected less of Sartre’s No Exit and more of a Kafka-esque tone, informed by touches that call to mind novelist Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The young men within Rhino are mostly just trying to endure in a perilous situation they can’t quite comprehend. One of them, Hertzel, has only two weeks left to serve, and is quietly dismayed to be told by Jamil that discharges have been frozen for the duration. Hertzel (Oshi Cohen) has a little of Heller’s Yossarian about him; he’s a mouthy, querulous guy whose competence is disdained by Assi (Itay Tiran), the tense, increasingly unstable tank commander. But he demonstrates solid, practical survivalist skills. (The performances are, individually and collectively, a real asset to the film.)

For all its power and intensity, Lebanon isn’t a seamlessly consistent work. Maoz’s control of the material isn’t always sure. The shots of the bloody mayhem in the town are invested with a concentrated excess; they have a sort of Grand Guignol character that almost verges into a grim, grotesque humor. And Maoz can make his points too excessive in other ways, as when, for example, he twice has people outside look reproachfully at the tank’s gunsight, and at us as voyeurs.

A couple of years ago, Ari Folman’s remarkable Israeli animated feature, Waltz with Bashir, recreated the memories and objective experiences of soldiers during the 1982 Israeli invasion, leading up to a devastating political and moral indictment of Israel’s military and civilian leadership. Maoz, like Folman a veteran of that war, seems to have wanted to dramatize an intensified microcosm of the conflict. Because his film’s scale is so much more limited, its “meaning” is less obvious. But it clearly enough privileges the soldiers over those far above who put them and the Lebanese population in harm’s way.

Watch the trailer for Lebanon

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