Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Samuel Maoz's claustrophobic LEBANON opens -- with a bang and a whimper

The first thing you may notice about LEBANON, the new "war" film from Samuel Maoz, are the sunflowers.  They're drooping, yet it's bright sunshine outside.  Shouldn't they be standing at attention?  Maybe not, since everything droops in Maoz's movie -- as depressive and depressing a film as you're likely to see -- except regarding the film-making itself. That, I've got to say, is pretty spectacular: an experience that makes the claustrophobia you recall in a movie such as Das Boot seem like a walk in the park. You want to feel really confined?  Try a tank.

Mr Maoz (shonw at right), an Israeli filmmaker with only one other movie to his credit (the decade-old documentary Total Eclipse), serviced his country as a gunner in one of the first tanks to cross over into Lebanon in the 1982 war. From that vantage point, he tells us in the press materials, he killed a man on order from his superior.  He's still recuperating, and Lebanon, evidently (the movie, not the place), is his therapy.  It won't be yours, but it will give you about the best you-are-there experience of being a kind of prisoner for 24 hours in a vehicle that could easily turn into your own, four-man cremation oven.

Maoz is smart enough to know that if you're going to confine the viewer, you'd better make the most of a visual situation that offers the least.  So his camera (the director of photography is Giora Bejach) acts as the eyes of the men inside, moving along the walls (that seem to grow tighter over time) and the floor, with its dirty, oily, watery sludge that still manages to offer some weird reflections, and occasionally watching the tank's lid, which opens only rarely to let in light (and a touch of the outside world) -- as well as run-ins with the nasty officer in charge.

We also see outside from the viewpoint of the gun site's periscope, but instead of offering even a tiny bit of freedom, this just adds to the fear and loathing, as we see human beings (above) caught in impossible situations, because of which they may have to be killed.

The dialog is generally tight and often angry.  But, then, fear is everywhere, in addition to which it looks very much like this tank situation is a kind of crazy, on-the-job training for most of these guys.  To kill or not to kill?  To follow orders, or refuse, or make excuses?  It's tricky. And terrifying.  The jargon's great, too: "I've got an angel," notes the commander, when there's a dead body to contend with. Only once, in a too-sudden ramble down memory lane, does the dialog seems problematic.  While the story that comes out of this is worth hearing, getting to it proves a little too manipulative.

The film raises a lot of important questions -- about Israel's aggression, militancy and attack mode, for starters -- and pointedly does not answer them, except by making us become Israeli soldiers for that short time, and then wonder how we would have handled things.  The most upsetting section -- out of many, it must be said -- involves a Lebanese family who are probably not aggressors yet who must be somehow "dealt with."  (This may bring to mind another recent film, Enemies of the People, in which the men at the top of the Cambodian totem pole, "solved" their problems by murdering them.)

En route, a prisoner is added to the mix, along with two of his captors.  Plot-wise, this is a smart move; in terms of anger, fear and frustration, it simply maximizes the problems. Lebanon is a punis-
hing, grueling movie, but to have it any other way would seem a cheat. If Maoz made the film to free himself from night terrors & painful memories, I hope it worked.  (It has only added to mine.)

Lebanon opens this Friday, August 6, in New York City -- at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Landmark Sunshine -- and on August 13 in the Los Angeles at the Nuart, with further openings in the L.A. area scheduled for the following week.

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