fri 05/06/2020

Lebanon | reviews, news & interviews

Lebanon

Lebanon

Tank's-eye-view of the horrors of war

A field of sunflowers hang their heads, as though in shame or sorrow, to the deep thrum of a single chord in the film's opening shot, at once beautiful and threatening. But that is about the only breath of fresh air in the whole of the movie. Set on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War, it proceeds for the rest of its duration to trap us, along with four terrified young Israeli soldiers, inside the confines of their tank, a monstrous apparition fetid with stale cigarette smoke, sweat and blood and a fifth character in its own right.
It sounds like the recipe for a stage play, even a radio one. But there is a long, varied and thriving tradition of submarine movies (explored recently in the BBC documentary Dive, Dive, Dive!); the tank film, with its even tighter space, is merely a more extreme example. And Lebanon, which won the Golden Lion in Venice last year, is a considerable achievement in visual style. A ingenious panoply of techniques transform the cramped space into a dynamic dramatic arena: figures reflected in the puddles of oil and piss on the tank floor, the whites of panicked eyes trapped in extreme close-up and the outside world viewed through the gunsight, which becomes more and more cracked and occluded as the tank comes under attack in the course of the film. The sound design, too, is highly impressive from the sinister screech that marks the swivelling of the gun turret in pursuit of its targets to the constant, cryptic clanks and thuds that could be either the war machine's own workings or assaults from the enemy (if Lebanon were an American film, it would be a sure-fire candidate for a Best Sound Oscar).

Lebanon3Samuel Maoz, whose first feature this is, belongs to a generation of Israeli directors who have been traumatised by their own experience in the First Lebanon War and sought to work this through in their movies (other recent examples include Joseph Cedar's Beaufort and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir). In Lebanon, Maoz's surrogate is Shmuel (played by Yoav Donat), the tank's gunner and the only member of the quartet who can see the outside world through the crosshairs of his gun-sights (which, not coincidentally, remind you of a camera's viewfinder). Filled with dread at the very thought, Shmuel has never before killed a man. He is soon relieved of that particular virginity, reducing an oncoming truck - which turns out to be transporting chickens - into an explosion of feathers and blood (this, like other incidents in the film, is directly based on Maoz's personal history).

The narrative is a chain of terrifying incidents which add up to nothing much more than the perception that war is hell; nor do the characters develop in interesting, unexpected directions. But how indelibly, how brilliantly those events are portrayed. You might facetiously dub the film No Tanks for the Memories. Yet, now that Maoz has come through on the other side of his personal therapy, perhaps he will find it somewhere in himself to write the script for a truly great movie.

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