Reviews - Lebanon
Reviewed By John Stakes
Writer/Director and former gunner Samuel Maoz also found himself in action on the first day of the war in Lebanon in 1982 (a conflict which was to run for 18 years), and his harrowing early experiences formed the subject matter of last Sunday’s screening of his debut feature Lebanon which won the best film award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion no less.
What was the distinguishing aspect of Maoz’s first film which set it apart for such a sagacious jury? For the entire ninety minutes’ running time of this utterly compelling drama the viewer found himself imprisoned within the narrow confines of an airless, leaking, stinking, rusting and mechanically defective Israeli tank on its first sortie across the border into Lebanon on day one of the conflict, manned by four inexperienced conscripts who were soon to wish they had never been born. Pitched straight into action and faced with instant life or death decisions, the men were unable to cope.
The claustrophobia engendered by Maoz’s hand held camera was palpable: the only window on the largely unseen enemy outside was the tank’s cranking periscope with its probing but limited vision of the immediate surrounding and dangerous terrain which revealed all manner of harrowing scenes.
A simple mission to follow on from a bombing exercise to clear a small town goes badly awry to leave the tank under the temporary direction of the Lebanese Christian Phalangists whose allegiance to Israel is untested and questionable. Stranded, alone and under fire, the crew finally manage to coax enough life out of the tank’s sputtering engine to escape from the town and into the relative safety of the dust covered sunflower fields beyond, having gained a Syrian prisoner and losing their driver in the process.
The film maintained its sweaty grip throughout thanks to some fine ensemble acting and the clever use of sound and minimal music which could have been fashioned from the tank’s own ironmongery. The men’s inexperience and fear were revealed through the terror in their highlighted faces and the need to relieve themselves which their prisoner also felt, this simple act of nature demonstrating their common humanity. Equally entombed, we not merely witnessed but also shared their ordeal.
The horrors of war and its effect on those suffering through it have been depicted in many memorable ways in the history of cinema, but Maoz’s simple device of locking the viewer inside a tank under siege for the duration of his film was a stroke of genius. By capturing the effect on the men of their actions the tank and its crew were revealed both as predators and victims of war thus exposing yet again its futility. For this reviewer the quality of the clammy claustrophobia on which this searing and powerful film depends has never been surpassed, and equals that achieved in Kanal, Wajda’s celebrated film about the plight of the people of Warsaw who took to the sewers to escape the invading German army.
Maoz’s film was shocking, harrowing and made for some very uncomfortable but nevertheless essential viewing. As an anti-war film it hit its target full on. And how refreshingly sweet the evening air of Keswick must have seemed as the audience emerged from the Alhambra’s darkened confines!
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