By Harry van Versendaal

Only a few minutes after descending into the guts of “Rhinoceros,” an Israeli armored tank, for the first time, gunner Shmulik freezes at the sight of an incoming suicide bomber that ends up killing a fellow soldier. A few moments later, he makes another mistake, blowing up the pick-up truck of an innocent civilian.

Not a great way to start your day.

War is hell; we all know that. And, yet, we tend to forget, particularly as we watch war movies from the cozy comfort of our couch at home or at our local popcorn-littered, shopping-mall multiplex.

Not this time. “Lebanon,” Samuel Maoz’s autobiographical tour-de-force about Israel’s “Operation Peace for Galilee,” is not your typical gung-ho patriotic war movie. There is no big budget, no flashy special effects. No politics. No audience/actor identification. No good-versus-bad guys, no heroes, no redemption. As far as “Lebanon” is concerned, less has certainly proved to be more.

June 6, 1982. Four Israeli soldiers stuck in an armored vehicle back a paratrooper unit on their way to an enemy village that has already been flattened by Israeli bombs. A routine exercise, in theory, the mission soon turns into a quagmire as the troops realize they have been lured into a lethal trap.

Nightmare sets in. And it is an extremely uncomfortable one to watch. Virtually all the action is confined inside the bowels of the tank (excellent camera work and repeated retina close-ups convey the tension on the crew’s sweaty, grime-covered faces) and the only visual contact with the outside world is through the cross-hairs of the gunsight. The tank’s gunsight and the director’s camera become one.

Scalding realism gives “Lebanon” an almost documentary feel: The sweltering heat, the deafening noise from the engine, the violent jerking, the dizzying fumes from the engine and gun. Hell on tracks.

“Man is steel, the tank is only iron” reads the jingoist motto inside the dark, filthy, claustrophobic war machine. But there are no ubermenschen here; just usual men in unusual situations. Disoriented and in a state of panic, the soldiers yield to baser human feelings and cravings. War dehumanizes.

But not all is lost. In an unlikely climax, we see a man helping another, an enemy captive, urinate into a tin box – a glimpse of human compassion.

“Lebanon,” which won the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice film festival last year, is not your usual war-as-spectacle, war-as-entertainment cinematic experience. It is suffocating and stifling; nerve-racking and emotionally draining. Unlike the recent “Waltz With Bashir” (which together with Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” make a trilogy of introspective Israeli films about what became known as “Israel’s Vietnam”), Ari Folman’s beautifully-crafted animation-memoir that spoke to the minds of audiences, “Lebanon” has a different target.

“I knew if I made the film political and tried to talk to people’s heads, it wouldn’t work,” Maoz has said of his film. “I attacked from another angle. I talked to the stomach, to the heart.”

And there is good reason to trust what he has to say. Like Shmulik, his stand-in, the director was just 19 when he climbed down into that tank. A gunner who had only practiced on barrels until that day, Maoz was suddenly “plunged into a reality where I must kill somebody.”

And this he did.

The film ends, early morning on June 7, with Shmulik popping his head up from the turret of the wounded Rhinoceros now resting in the middle of a sunflower field, drenched in sunlight.

Even walking onto Syngrou Avenue from the tucked-away Mikrokosmos theater gave you a sense of release and relief.


1 Response to “Lebanon”

  1. 1 Lily February 9, 2010 at 16:35

    Great article for a great movie!

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