Dir: Samuel Maoz
Cert: 15 • Israel: 93 min • Ariel Films • In Theatres
The irony of Lebanon, Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s account of his experiences on the first day of the 1982 ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’, is that it has almost nothing to do with Lebanon per se. The story, insofar as there is one, could be set in any country, any tank, any war. As it is, Lebanon is a film in which nothing happens and the characters make no discernible journey.
The film opens onto a field of sunflowers swaying gently in a summer breeze. If this stunning image remains so allusive, I thought, maybe Maoz actually deserves the Golden Lion he just won at Venice. An hour and a half later, however, the film returns to that opening shot, except this time – groan – a tank drives straight through it. Thankfully, by then I’d been thrashed into weary submission and reminded anew that if war is hell then so are didactic war movies.
Shot almost entirely inside a single tank – there are only three exterior shots: a formalist stunt that becomes exponentially less impressive with each successive reel – Lebanon focuses squarely on the four soldiers for whom the vehicle is a claustrophobic second home. Shmulik (Yoav Donat), reportedly based on Maoz himself, is the unit’s new gunner, who turns out to be too petrified to pull the trigger when the time comes. The other three are, basically: the tough guy, the peacemaker and the comic relief. It is hard to care about these feckless characters who miss their mothers and seem unable to grasp the basics of what’s going on around them: the world outside the tank remains an abstraction, experienced solely through sound and via the gunner’s viewfinder; when a captured Syrian soldier is lowered into the tank, they are unable to fathom his terror on meeting a Phalangist.
Indeed, the film’s single moment of insight appears to be inadvertent. An apartment building is destroyed and a Lebanese mother (Reymonde Amsellem) searches vainly among the rubble for her dead child. Suddenly, her clothes go up in flames and, to save her life, an Israeli soldier rips them off. The woman wanders among the devastation of what was her home, in a state of shock, naked from the waist up, traumatised and completely alone. The soldiers look on impassively. Yet when Maoz was asked at the New York Film Festival last year if this woman was meant to represent anything, he replied: ‘No, not really. She was just what I saw.’
Lebanon is not an anti-war film, as it has been hailed by some; there is no critique of the military, which is all the more shocking considering how militarised Israeli society is. For a true anti-war film, you’d have to watch Apocalypse Now.