DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Lebanon

Saturday 19 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Lebanon

Lebanon (2009) dir. Samuel Maoz
Starring: Itay Tiran, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss


The presence of the Venice Film Festival purposely scheduled a week before TIFF has meant it often gets a jump on the discoveries normally attributed to this festival. While at TIFF most of us bloggers, critics, cinephiles wait for what film emerges with the Golden Lion - an award not as coveted as say, the Palme D’Or but as shown by history, an award as influential. Before garnering acclaim at TIFF films like Brokeback Mountain, and The Wrestler won awards there.

And so when Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon” was announced as the Golden Lion winner I immediately looked it up to see when it was playing. So did every other writer/agent/distributor last Sunday at it’s first P&I screening where an enormous crowd showed up with only about half the number of seats as the demand. The second screening was equally packed but I did manage to get in.

It’s an intense adventure using the same subject matter as “Waltz With Bashir” - another Israeli take on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This time we’re put into a tank with four Israeli soldiers. There’s Assi the commander, Shmulik the gunner, Yigal the driver and Hertzel the loquatious loader. Being friends as well as comrades means that Assi often has difficult asserting his orders to the group - specifically with Hertzel who questions the logic of the chain of command and the hierarchy of duties. It makes for light humorous banter, dulling us to the horror going on outside the tank.

But when Major Jamil enters the tank orders get thrown down with authority. With clarity Jamil makes it simple, proceed through the recently demolished village, look for surviving enemy soldiers and contain any lingering threats. We’re told it’s a walk in the park until they get to their next destination, an impending battle in San Tropez.

The tank has two points of view, a wide angle pigeonhole target sight of the gun, and a closer zoomed in view from the same angle. From these two shots we watch as Shmulik slowly go stir crazy from the brutality he’s forced to watch happening on the outside - a family being shot to death in a vacant building, an innocent muslim blown apart in his car, even a cow clinging to life with his stomach torn open are indelible images to both Shmulik and us, the audience.

For the others, the intensity increases from earth quaking of the explosions and devastating sounds of war echoing through the steel machine. Like the metallic claustrophobia of the German sub in ‘Das Boot”, the confines of the metal tank serves as the film’s only location. The space is tight and perhaps Maoz’s used Alfred Hitchcock's 'Lifeboat' as inspiration to maintain a dynamic and non-repetitive visual experience from such a small place.

The few sources of light create enough creative light schemes to play with and the occasional time the hatch is opened up sends a blinding beam of light into the tank is enough to remind us that there is another world outside.

Admirable as it is in creating a intense war film without really seeing anything, the film suffers from our uncertainty as to whether the filmmakers are actually taking a stand on something. War is bad, we know. Perhaps it’s the singular point of view of the tank as a metaphor for the unwavering partyline of the Israeli military. Maybe. It’s an implied theme which we have to stretch to find, but it lacks the passionate confessionary tone of “Bashir”. And so it fails to raise itself to the cinematic level of brilliance the concept and the era in history demands.

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