BERLIN -- While more somber than darkly comic, Joseph Cedar's "Beaufort" fits nicely into the tradition of war story absurdism pioneered by Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22" and Robert Altman's film "MASH."

That it's an Israeli film may speak to a growing weariness in that country about being on a continual war footing. Given the futility of Israel's recent invasion of Lebanon, "Beaufort" is a cautionary tale that arrives perhaps a year too late.

The film has less to do with the Middle East than with war as an institution. Young soldiers with families and girlfriends fight and die, and often it is for a piece of ground that is more symbolic than strategic. Such a universal theme could find audiences outside of Israel in Europe and North America.

Cedar and Ron Leshem's screenplay, based on Ron Leshem's best-selling novel, "Im Yesh Gan Eden," focuses on the final weeks of the Israeli occupation of Beaufort Castle, a hilltop fortress in Lebanon dating back to the Crusades. The Israeli Army conquered the fort in 1982 in the early days of the first Lebanese war. Its continued occupation of the hill until 2000 signaled Israeli control of that part of Lebanon.

But after Israel announced its intention to withdraw from that country, the soldiers' presence at Beaufort is pointless. Exposed to continual danger from mortar shells and rocket attacks, the young men no longer have a viable mission. What they are defending is a mountain they will soon abandon.

The central figure is Liraz Liberti (Oshri Cohen), the 22-year-old commander. He probably is the only one at Beaufort who wants the job. Where once he took pride in his leadership, he is now paralyzed in his decisionmaking. The mission no longer has any point, yet here they sit amid raining mortar shells. The only intelligent command would be to withdraw, but it's one he refuses to issue until ordered to do so.

A bomb squad expert (Ohad Knoller) arrives to dismantle a bomb lying on a minor dirt road used only to bring supplies to the fortress. The mission is as dangerous as it is futile.

Then a powerful rocket attack kills a solider in an outpost, signaling renewed enemy interest in creating as many casualties as possible to make the Israeli withdrawal look like a chaotic retreat.

Finally, the evacuation draws near. The army wires the whole place to blow the fortress up. Yet on what should be a last night with only a dozen soldiers left, withdrawal orders do not arrive: Everyone must hold tight for another pathetic day.

Within the safe walls and an underground city of concrete, the young men develop a world onto themselves, cut off from friend and foe, with its own dark humor and rituals.

Does your mother know you're here? one soldier asks another. It turns out most of the men's families have no idea.

Another soldier idly says he's "guarding the mountain," then after a pause adds: "So it won't escape."

The movie doesn't completely escape war film conventions. The chief offense is the scene where we really get to know about a guy and his girl moments before he gets killed, a tradition that was old in John Wayne movies.

Otherwise, this is a solid effort with superb production values and a musical score by Ishai Adar that you hardly notice at all: It's just a low, anxious murmur throughout the movie.

United King Films/Metro Communications/Movie Plus
Director: Joseph Cedar
Screenwriters: Ron Leshem, Joseph Cedar
Based on a novel by: Ron Leshem
Producers: David Silber, Joseph Cedar
Executive producers: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Ofer Yanov
Production designer: Miguel Markin
Music: Ishai Adar
Costume designer: Maya More
Editor: Zohar M. Sela
Liraz: Oshri Cohen
Koris: Itay Tiran
Oshri: Eli Eltonyo
Ziv: Ohad Knoller
Zitlawy: Itay Turgeman
Running time -- 131 minutes
No MPAA rating