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Lebanon -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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Venice Film Festival, Competition

VENICE -- The emotional traumas of young Israeli soldiers drafted into the war with Lebanon in the 1980s are recounted through the eyes of a tank crew in this wrenching concentration of raw emotion directed by Samuel Maoz.

Compared to Ari Folman's sophisticated animation-memory "Waltz With Bashir," another autobiographical film that dealt with the same war, "Lebanon" takes a very different, experiential approach to describe the sheer horror of warfare, rather than its political background. At times it seems the film, which goes heavy on close-ups and dialogue to make the most of a low budget, could have been set during World War II. That said, viewers with a strong interest in Israel and the Middle East are likely to make up the lion's share of the international audience for this disturbing, high-voltage festival film.

The action is set entirely within the claustrophobic confines of an armored tank; the only views of the outside world are through the cross-hairs of the gun barrel. Four hot, grime-streaked, twentysomething soldiers -- Shmuel the gunner, Assi the commander, Herzl the loader and Yigal the driver -- are manning the tank amid deafening noise and a sickening rocking and bumping motion when the vehicle is in motion. No one obeys orders and one by one they go into panic as they realize they have driven into a lethal trap.

Their commanding officer (Zohar Strauss) leads them and a ground force on a mission that at first seems like a piece of cake. All they have to do is to "clean up" a Lebanese town that has already been bombed by the Israeli Air Force and move on to a meeting point. It turns into a nightmare for these soft, panic-stricken soldiers, who can't bring themselves to pull the trigger on combatants and end up killing civilians instead.

This must qualify as one of the most anti-heroic war movies ever made; not a single character can stomach battle or shows the slightest courage towards his comrades, making mockery of a plaque that extols: "Man is steel. A tank is only iron." It is hard to care about these feckless characters, who miss their mothers back at home and seem unable to grasp the basics of what's going on around them. When a Syrian POW is lowered into the tank, they can't fathom his terror on being threatened by a ferocious Phalangist (a Christian Arab) out for his blood.

It the darkness of the tank, the scared boys' wide-eyed, grimy faces are hard to tell apart. What does come through is a visceral horror described without letup or dramatic relief. The long sequence in which they participate in shelling a building where a Christian family is being held hostage by terrorists is all the more powerful for being seen only through the cross-hairs of a gun; actress Reymonde Amsellem is unforgettable as the young mother whose family is killed in front of her eyes.

Production companies: Metro Communications, Ariel Films, Arsam International
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Cast: Yoav Donat, Italy Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa, Ashraf Barhom, Reymonde Amsellem
Director: Samuel Maoz
Screenwriter: Samuel Maoz
Producer: Uri Sabag, Einat Bikel, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, David Silber, Benjamina Mirnik, Ilann Girard
Director of photography: Giora Bejach
Production designer: Ariel Roshko
Music: Nicolas Becker
Costumes: Hila Bargirel
Editor: Arik Lahav-Leibovich

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No MPAA rating, 93 minutes