Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Israeli film Lebanon reviewed

Lebanon is an extraordinary film. It is about war, it is not a war film. It produced intense and conflicting emotions in me when I was watching it. If that was the intention of its director, Samuel Maoz, he certainly succeeded.

I will take this occasion to rebuke all those reviewers who criticized it for not expanding onto the wider landscape of the endless conflicts that have afflicted the Middle East. First of all, to have done so would have resulted in an extremely long and practically unwatchable film, its central and powerful narrative would have been diluted. Secondly, and more important, Lebanon fixes its gaze on the inner mechanisms and psychology of war, not on dry theorizing, by focusing on the daily lives of a bunch of complete strangers which constitutes the crew of an Israeli tank during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, one of the many endless wars that the Israeli political classes have embarked in their quest for a Greater Israel, a concept that is now as much a myth as El Dorado was in the 16th century. Wars carried out regardless of the blood spilled by their own soldiers, without counting the huge civilian body count on the other side, whichever it may be. The consequences? An ever expanding circle of fire, an endlessly enemy making machine which has made not only Israel more insecure, but also the West.

Lebanon begins with a wide angle shot of a sunflower field, withered sunflowers, which are soon disturbed by a strong gust of wind, an indication of what is to come. The final scene is shot in the same field, the sunflowers being disturbed this time by the presence of a tank. One of the first impressions I had was to notice that this tank was a wreck, before going into battle, as the soldiers getting into it down the hatch step into a mix of water, machine oil and rubbish laying at the bottom of the cabin. This adds credibility to those military strategists who have argued that wars are not won by the most competent army, but by the least incompetent one.

To have put four young and inexperienced conscripts, complete strangers, poorly trained, an expect them to perform like a well oiled team in the madness, chaos and brutality of armed conflict was plain stupidity, the tank commander being barely able to establish any sign of authority and military discipline to his subordinates. Add to this volatile mix the fact that the tank was already a wreck before it was commissioned into this mission; it was a miracle that it managed to stumble to safety with the loss of just one member of its crew after a frantic run to end up on that field of withered sunflowers. Jalim, the commander of the platoon of paratroopers to which the tank had been assigned, leads his men into an area controlled by a Syrian army unit either by having faulty intelligence, or having misread it. This war is no longer a walk in the park.

The myth of Israeli military infallibility is over. By sign posting that reality, Lebanon may well be indicating to the Israeli society that the road for peace, stability and security lays elsewhere.

In between, we follow the lives of these four young men trapped in this oil stained urine smelling steel coffin that some people call a tank. We see how in a matter of hours gunners who had shot only blanks before are confronted with life and death decisions, the results of those decisions are not pretty. Not pretty at all: simply and plainly, they are war crimes. We also see the euphemisms employed by the Israeli army to circumvent international legislation, so phosphorous shells are no longer called so. If the whole of the IDF have conducted their wars as depicted in this film, then the whole of the IDF, soldiers and officers, should be indicted of war crimes.

Yet, the counter argument is that when young and inexperienced soldiers are put into situations such as this, where their options are severely curtailed if they want to get out alive, where their ways out are shrouded in darkness, they cannot behave in any other manner that they way they did, war crimes or not. The buck has entirely been passed onto the hands of the political classes, and it should stay there.

As I said at the beginning, this is an extraordinary psychologically gripping drama in all its aspects,: story line, acting, cinematography, music; a film that kept me at the edge of my seat muttering to myself throughout its duration like a madman. Not recommended for those people who have a faint heart.

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