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Lebanon: War seen through a gun sight

A woman struggles with an Israeli soldier in a scene from Lebanon.

3 out of 4 stars



  • Written and directed by Samuel Maoz
  • Starring Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Oshri Cohen and Itay Tiran

Like fellow Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman ( Waltz with Bashir), Samuel Maoz is a veteran of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But the two directors have taken very different routes to memorialize their military experiences.

Folman decided that reconstruction of war on film is impossible, even from personal memory, which is why he opted to use the abstract medium of animation.

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Maoz has gone the other direction with Lebanon, pushing the edge of verisimilitude in reconstructing his experiences as a tank gunner, pushing viewers well out of their comfort zones as a way of softening them up for his metaphoric theme.

The result is that Lebanon, which won the Golden Lion prize as best film at the Venice festival last year, is an emotionally powerful if somewhat divided experience. The grimness, the sweat, the panic are there in Saving Private Ryan-level intensity. At the same time, you never entirely lose the sense that the movie is a formal and calculated cinematic exercise, something of an illustrated argument.

At the start, a young gunner, Shmulik (Yoav Donat) joins the three baby-faced members of the tank's crew. They include the nervous driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the motor-mouthed shell loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and the nervous officer, Assi (Itay Tiran). These soldiers aren't the hard-muscled, terse heroes of American action films: They are four rookies trapped in a metal box that is sloshing with garbage-filled water from condensation. They bicker like schoolboys over who's in charge, panic at every crisis and, in their anxiety, frequently pee into a can.

On the few occasions when the tank hatch is opened, light and outside sound blast into their cramped chamber. Occasionally a pair of legs descend: a dying Israeli soldier, a Syrian prisoner, a fanatical Christian Phalangist who's a putative ally. Most often, they receive brusque updates on an increasingly dire situation from their commander, Jamil (Zohar Strauss).

It's all heart-poundingly authentic and yet, somehow, not. The tank's periscope has a handy knack of zooming in on exactly the right, telling detail: a close-up of a mortally wounded donkey's delicate eyelashes; a travel-agency image of the World Trade towers; a wider shot of a half-naked young mother in the rubble, screaming for her dead child. Horrific as these glimpses of the outside world are, they feel conveniently pre-edited.

The film's tenor shifts from anxiety to panic as the hours pass, and the crew discover that they have travelled, by mistake, into a dangerous Syrian-held zone where they suffer rocket damage. Visceral fear turns into queasy surrealism, with menacing music playing on loudspeakers outside and the nightlights turning the men's dirty faces into patterned masks.

In the buzz of military jargon on the radio ("angels" for helicopters; "flowers" for wounded soldiers; the secret "Pluto" radio frequency), we seem to slide into an allegorical nightmare.

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And not a particularly subtle one, at that. Given the circumstances of the film's creation followingthe 2006 war, it's impossible to avoid seeing the broken tank as representing anything but the state of Israel itself, lurching blindly forward into disaster.

As viscerally powerful as Maoz's memory drama may be, its meaning feels as locked in as the men confined beneath the tank's hatch.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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