Written / Directed by Samuel Maoz
Oscar Wilde once said: “As soon as war is looked upon as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” There are few modern nations that have a better understanding of the truths of modern war as the tiny Middle Eastern state of Israel. Recently, a number of films have started to emerge documenting the country’s involvement in the 1982 conflict in Lebanon, most notably the 2008 documentary and Academy Award nominee Waltz with Bashir, which depicted director Ari Folman’s search for his own lost memories of the conflict.
Last year, another Israeli film testified to Wilde’s assertion – that film is Lebanon, written and directed by Samuel Maoz. The film follows an Israeli tank crew as they support a paratrooper unit’s search for insurgents in Southern Lebanon. Almost the entire film takes place inside a Merkava Mark I tank, with the audience only being allowed to see the outside world through the tank’s gun sight. This was a fascinating choice by the director to really give the audience the same perspective as the tank’s young crew. We are quickly reminded of Wolfgang Petersen’s classic Das Boot, a film Lebanon has been compared to by critics. Given the limited space of the tank’s interior and the periscope type perspective of the outside world, the audience is treated to a virtual sensory overload being in such close proximity with the sweat-soaked soldiers, the cigarette smoke and the oil-slicked floor.
Thematically, the film covers much of the same ground as similar fare; the brotherhood of soldiers, fear, and the morality of war all play a large part in the film. However, the specifics of these ideas seemed to get lost in the fog of battle. The film attempts to show a variety of human relationships and experiences but is not very successful in threading it all together. With the four main actors being in such close quarters, a little can go a very long way. Many scenes devolve into multi-character screaming matches, so much so that the subtler nuances and messages the film intends to convey are obscured almost to the vanishing point.
One of the more interesting performances is provided by Zohar Shtrauss, who plays the paratrooper Gamil. His depiction of a man carrying the extreme weight of an officer in combat is never less than convincing. The character serves a human connection to the outside world for both the tank crew and the audience. His character would literally drop into the tank through the top hatch to communicate with the tank crew, use the radio and give orders. This physical action coupled with the extremely small set gives the entire piece an almost theatrical feel. Like a performer emerging out of some hidden trap door in the stage floor.
Technically, Sam Maoz’s use of the tank itself as a permanent set is excellent. The use of the gun-sight and the whine of the motors when it moved as a dramatic device was completely unique. The technical camera work of the film’s DOP, Giora Bejach, is nothing short of incredible. It was both interesting and effective. However, the sense of claustrophobia becomes very intense. It was a bit like looking at a car wreck with a microscope. Not a bad technical choice, just an overwhelming one.
Overall, Lebanon leaves the viewer feeling a bit empty. It does a decent job of showing us the brutalities of war and the horrible conditions of fighting within the bowels of a tank, but fails to grasp the viewer in an emotional sense, so that we are left pitying the characters rather than relating to them. The use of the tank is incredibly well-handled, but we can see why more films haven’t taken place inside a vehicle with such limited space. After about an hour, the novelty begins to wear off and we start longing for a change in scenery.
Lebanon has done very well on the festival circuit, winning the Leone d’Oro at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, becoming the first Israeli-produced film to have won that honor. The film premiered in North America at The Toronto International Film Festival last September but will not be released in theatres until later this summer. The film was nominated for 10 Ophir Awards, including Best Film. The film also won the 14th Annual Satyajit Ray Award.
– Jacob Barker