Movie review: ‘Lebanon’

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Just as the word “Vietnam” came to mean more than a country for many Americans and came to describe an era and a state of mind, so too the word “ Lebanon” is not just the name of an excellent new Israeli film, it signifies a continuing national obsession that shows no signs of going away.

In fact, “Lebanon,” written and directed by Samuel Maoz and the winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, is the third Israeli film of the last few years to deal persuasively with the psychological aftermath of Israel’s traumatic 1982 invasion of its neighbor.

After its two first-rate predecessors, Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” and Ari Folman’s “ Waltz With Bashir,” it may seem like there can’t be anything for a new project to say about that war. But “Lebanon” is a different kind of motion picture, and a different kind of audience experience.

More of an experiential film than a carefully plotted narrative, “Lebanon,” based closely on Maoz’s experiences, thrusts you inside an Israeli tank during the first day of the invasion and doesn’t let you out. And that turns out to be a nightmarish place to be, for us as much as for the four young conscripts trapped in the beast.

This notion, this suffocating idea that we are in the tank all the time, that our only connection to the outside world is what can be seen through the tank’s telescopic gun sight, may be reminiscent of the German “Das Boot,” but the undeniable smallness of the tank makes it an especially claustrophobic place to be.

It is also a scorchingly hot, constantly noisy, continually shaking environment, an indescribably grim hell that takes on a life of its own. As a British critic accurately wrote when the film opened in London, “The tank is a character in itself — it breathes fumes, rattles and leaks oil everywhere like the acid drool slavering from the jaws of Ridley Scott’s alien.”

Into this savage maw are thrust four young men, conscripts barely out of their teens who are in no way prepared for what is about to happen to them.

Assi (Itay Tiran) may be the tank’s commander, but he’s nowhere close to feeling in charge and is always being needled by Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), the mouthy ammunition loader. Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, is an only child worried about his parents, while Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the nervous gunner, is the writer-director’s stand-in.

Treated contemptuously by Jamil (Zohar Strauss), a professional soldier and the area commander, the tank crew is ordered into a town said to be already pacified. The reality is that it is nothing of the sort, and slowly, tentatively, the tank enters a devastating horror show that starts dreadfully and gets nothing but worse.

First, Shmulik’s hesitation leads to the death of an Israeli soldier. Then the soldier’s body has to be placed inside the tank for safe-keeping. Then a firefight involving civilian hostages leads to the appalling spectacle of a wounded, half-clothed woman in agony over the death of her child.

Worse is yet to come, as the tank is hit and temporarily disabled. Then a Syrian prisoner of war is brought inside, again for safe-keeping, but a Phalangist, a Lebanese Christian, comes in as well, and in Arabic that the Israelis can’t understand but we see in subtitles, describes to the Syrian in the most graphic terms imaginable the sadistic ways he is going to torture him to death.

While all this and more is taking place, the four young men in the tank are having mental breakdowns, each in his own way, as war proves unimaginably dirtier, harder and uglier than they anticipated. A sign posted inside may say “Man is steel, the tank is only iron,” but “Lebanon” tells us that the reality is quite different.

Writer-director Maoz graduated from film school in 1987, but it took him 20 years to return to this traumatic experience and turn it into his first feature. His savage film shows us in no uncertain terms how war destroys everything and everyone it touches, the victorious living no less than the vanquished dead.