Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Samuel Maoz, director and script
Starring: Oshri Cohen (Herzl), Michael Moshonov (Yigal), Itay Tiran (Assi), Yoav Donat (Shmulik), Dudu Tassa (Syrian prisoner)
“I dedicate this award to the thousands of people all over the world who, like me, come back from war safe and sound. Apparently they are fine, they work, get married, have children. But inside the memory will remain stabbed in their soul.”—Samuel Maoz, on winning the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival
Samuel Maoz, the director and writer of the remarkable Israeli drama Lebanon was a young conscript in the 1982 war that devastated Beirut and much of that country. It’s become clear that the invasion of Lebanon and its brutal consequences on the civilian population was Israel’s equivalent to American Vietnam War—the conflict that called into question a nation’s idealistic purpose.
Lebanon is set inside a tank during the war. The audience never leaves the tank nor its four soldiers throughout the drama. The physicality of the place—its dank, wet atmosphere made ripe by cigarette smoke and urine—adds to the claustrophobic sense of isolation and despair that permeates the film. Herzl, Yigal, Assi and Shmulik are a quartet of histrionic losers; not one has the guts or brutality necessary to make a hard, unyielding soldier. All they want is to go home.
The outside world can only be seen through the tank’s gunsight, which pans slowly through the weapon’s turret. Accompanied by a harsh, mechanical whine, the sight is reminiscent of Robocop, where a resurrected policeman sees things in a cool, alienated manner, making the violence around him appear to be strange rather than emotionally affecting.
In the film’s cruelest episode, a Lebanese mother emerges hysterical but unscathed after the tank’s artillery has killed the Arab soldiers threatening her—but also her five-year old daughter. You see her desperately trying to make sense of things, flinging herself violently at an Israeli soldier as a firefight between Arabs and Jews continues.
The only people entering the tank are the tough, laconic Israeli commander, a dead Jewish soldier—an “angel”—waiting to be taken home by helicopter, a Syrian Prisoner-Of-War (POW) and a Christian Arab Falangist, who terrifies the POW with death threats.
Lebanon is a tough, brilliantly composed, minimalist anti-war film. It’s not fun to watch but Maoz has an important story to tell. Should you see it? Sure, but maybe on DVD—and certainly not on a date!