Like Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, Samuel Moaz's Lebanon is cinema as catharsis; both movies were made by middle-aged men trying to come to terms with their service in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But while Folman dressed his story in animation and documentary, Moaz focuses on the drama (and trauma) that confront a quartet of young tank soldiers in the opening hours of the war. After a year on the festival circuit that included stops at the Venice, Toronto International, New York and San Francisco International film festivals, this Best Film nominee at the Israeli Film Academy awards arrives in theaters for a late summer arthouse release. Intense and claustrophobic, the film's appeal to fans of personal stories and antiwar drama, as well as moviegoers interested in the history and politics of the 1982 campaign, should translate into at least modest box office success.
Up until now, war has been theoretical for tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran), driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), loader Herzl (Oshri Cohen) and the newest member of the crew, gunner Shmuel (Yoav Donat, playing the character based on the then 20 year old Moaz). The team accompanies a troop of foot soldiers on the first day of the conflict to what's expected to be a mop up operation after aerial bombardment has destroyed a Lebanese town. Their baptism into the violence, confusion and terror of war is quick and brutal and the soldiers' senses of vulnerability amps up their fear to almost unbearable levels. From the outside, the tank looks like the safest place to be when the firing starts, but it feels like a trap to those within it.
Lebanon takes place almost entirely within the confines of that tank. The filmgoer sees only what the soldiers see through the narrow range of their sites and hear what they hear, the shooting and bombardment muffled by reinforced steel yet somehow amplified nearly beyond endurance to the nervous men. For a while, the tank becomes a rolling tomb for a dead infantryman needing transport to a pickup location and a prison for a captured Syrian. The walls and floor of the tank collect all sorts of mire, a seeming physical manifestation of the men's rising paranoia and fright. Communication among the crew becomes fraught as Assi tries to assert command, while sardonic Herzl becomes ever more insubordinate, Yigal yearns for his parents and Shmuel stews in his own personal hell.
Maoz's memories of the war are disturbing and visceral; his script was years in the making, because he says that every time he would sit down and try to write the scent of charred flesh would invade his senses and he would have to stop. To prepare his actors for their roles he locked them in a hot shipping container for hours, rocked the container and hit it with iron bars to simulate combat conditions. The performances are spot on and so is the film's ever growing sense of horror. That dogged determination to tell his story and to recreate the experience as closely as possible results in a film that is nearly tactile in its evocation of the violence and blind panic of war.
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss
Director/Screenwriter: Samuel Maoz
Producer: Uri Sabag, Anat Bikel, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, David Silber, Benjamina Mirnik and Ilann Girard
Genre: Drama; Hebrew-, Arabic-, French- and English-languages, subtitled
Rating: R for disturbing bloody war violence, language including sexual references, and some nudity.
Running time: 93 min
Release date: August 6 NY