Lebanon (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Lebanon’s biggest disappointment is the yawning gulf between the film’s surface—the cinematography by Giora Bejach and soundtrack by Nicolas Becker and Benoit Delbecq—and its substance, in particular the screenplay by Maoz.

Lebanon, the first feature film from director Samuel Maoz, is likely to prove a Marmite film: like the yeast-based spread, you’ll either love it or hate it. Clearly, the jury at last year’s Venice Film Festival loved it, as they gave it their highest award, the Golden Lion for Best Film (and in case you hadn’t heard, a title card informing you of this fact is the first thing you will see a when the film begins). On the other hand, it was rejected by the Berlin and Cannes festivals, and I’m not entirely sold on this film myself. I don’t exactly hate it so much as feel that it’s basically a con job. It pairs well-known horror movie techniques with a currently popular topic (the Lebanon War, which was explored more meaningfully in Waltz with Bashir). It also has enough of an ambiguous social conscience to be perceived as either supportive or critical of the Israeli soldiers at the heart of the movie (and by extension, anything from the 1982 Lebanon War, to the state of Israel, to the very practice of war itself).
The story involves 24 hours in the lives of four young Israeli soldiers invading Lebanon in a tank. Assi (Itay Tiran) is an indecisive leader unable to command his men’s respect. Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner, is a coward who causes the death of a comrade when he loses his nerve and is unable to pull the trigger at a crucial moment. Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, panics when he can’t get the tank to start and won’t stop talking about his mother. Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) fancies himself a tough guy who has to contest everything and won’t shut up or even obey a command to not smoke in the turret. They’re not exactly a heroic lot, and they don’t display good movie soldier camaraderie. Instead they bicker among themselves constantly. While this is understandable given their circumstances (the tank’s interior is roomier than you might think, but also hot and filthy—and don’t forget that these young men are in constant fear for their lives), from a viewer’s perspective it gets old very quickly.
These four never leave the tank, but people occasionally drop in on them (literally, as in, through the hatch): their hard-as-nails commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss), a Syrian prisoner (Duda Tassa), a Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom), and the body of a dead comrade. The radio, often broadcasting in code, is a constant presence within the tank as well. The crew’s view of the outside world is limited largely to what is revealed by the tank’s scope, and Maoz skillfully uses this restricted perspective to manipulate the audience. Scenes viewed through the scope are at times surreal (views of the World Trade Center and the Eiffel Tower turn out to be paintings on a café wall), at times maudlin (tears from the eye of a dying donkey—really!) and at times horrifying (a young mother, crazed with grief, stripped of her clothing after it catches fire).
The setup is similar to many a horror film in which a small band of individuals has to make their way through hostile territory besieged by a rampaging horde of werewolves, monsters, the living dead—take your pick. Normally, one’s sympathies are with the rogue survivors, and we are emotionally invested in their making it to safety—or at least making it through the night. But in the case of Lebanon, the guys in the tank are the rampaging hordes. Without the Israeli invasion, of which they are a part, the horrors they observe would not be happening. It’s a similar problem to that of Centurion; the film expects you to cheer the invading Romans without considering the possibility that you might think they deserve whatever they get.
Lebanon makes it pretty clear that the Israelis are far from heroic. We see soldiers murder civilians in cold blood as well as by accident, and Jamil orders the tank unit to use white phosphorous (an incendiary weapon banned from use in civilian areas) but to call it “flaming smoke.” But for all the horrors shown in this film, there’s very little emotional impact. The awful sights viewed through the scope seem almost artful rather than terrifying or heart wrenching, and for all the explosions and shooting there’s not much tension generated around the question of the crew’s survival.
Lebanon’s biggest disappointment is the yawning gulf between the film’s surface—the cinematography by Giora Bejach and soundtrack by Nicolas Becker and Benoit Delbecq—and its substance, in particular the screenplay by Maoz. The cinematography and soundtrack are stunning and account for most of the film’s impact. Watching it is like being inside a particularly claustrophobic video game, where for all your weapons and armor, you really can’t exert much control over your own survival. But the four men in the tank are all familiar stereotypes from war movies, and character development is so perfunctory that it’s tough to feel much concern for any of them. There’s an attempt about an hour in to open up the film by having the men tell stories of their childhoods, but this scene feels flat in relation to screen time devoted to manly matters like shooting at people and blowing things up. And it’s not possible to identify with the dead civilians, because they are treated merely as objects in the soldier’s tale.
It’s too bad Lebanon fails so badly in the human element, because without it you are left with a skillful exercise admirably executed but lacking in the qualities that make a film great. | Sarah Boslaugh

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