Lebanon, written and directed by Samuel Maoz, is not just the year's most impressive first feature but also the strongest new movie of any kind I've seen in 2010. Actually, Lebanon—which won the Golden Lion at Venice, after being rejected by Berlin and Cannes—hardly seems like a debut, perhaps because it's based on a scenario Maoz had been replaying in his head for nearly 30 years.
It's evident that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel's fifth and least defensible war, has had a remarkable re-emergence in the nation's film industry. Like Ari Folman's groundbreaking animation Waltz With Bashir before it, Lebanon is a film by a traumatized veteran. Set over the course of a 24-hour period entirely inside an Israeli tank heading north on the war's first day, Maoz's cine memoir is at once political allegory and existential combat movie.
Blunt, clamorous and harrowing, Lebanon is also a formalist tour de force. As the Israeli soldiers never leave their tank, code-named Rhino, the movie is necessarily shot mainly in close-up and, except for the very end, all exteriors are scanned through the crosshairs of the tank's bombsight. The outside world is heard through the tank's steel plating or via crackling radio transmissions from distant headquarters. Individuals—a Syrian captive, a dying Israeli soldier and, most often, the battle-hardened platoon leader Jamil—are intermittently lowered into, or lower themselves into, this moving dungeon. But for the four men inside, there is no escape.
Lebanon: A Claustrophobic Look at War's Horrors.
There is no space for anything but the present moment inside the tank. The men's lack of training is made evident early, when the tank's increasingly befuddled commander argues with his high-strung childhood buddy about whose job is more crucial and whose turn it is to stand watch. The tank's driver responds negatively to pressure while the newly assigned gunner, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), named for the filmmaker, proves unable to fire at a living target.
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Shmulik's paralysis results in at least one Israeli casualty. Of course when Shmulik does manage to squeeze the trigger next time, the results are appalling. The Israelis inflict brutal collateral damage on Lebanese civilians that is all the more appalling as a factor of their own fear.
Because none of the soldiers speak Arabic, they are oblivious to the dramatic confrontation between the ostensibly helpful Falangist, who is to guide them, and their Syrian prisoner. Cramped, noisy, airless and hot enough to boil piss, the tank is surrounded by invisible Syrians who set about terrorizing the Israelis by playing an eerie death tango. "I want to go home," one wails. "I want my mom!"
For some, this outburst is the movie's most disturbing aspect. What makes "the image of an Israeli soldier, agonizing and crying, so appealing to festival curators and audiences of the western world?" one Israeli critic wondered. The Lebanese civilians are subject to far more gruesome suffering than the soldiers while, in his justified hysteria, the Syrian POW inspires at least as much empathy as his Israeli captors. What Lebanon does not do is pretend to share any perspective other than that of Shmulik and his comrades.
Less "agonized and crying" than confined, confused and utterly self-absorbed, the soldiers in Rhino are unwilling conscripts yearning for normality, ignorant of their enemy, misled by their superiors and totally fixated on personal survival. Lebanon may be the movie's title, but, blindly plowing through everything in its path, the beleaguered tank is Israel.