REVIEW: DVD Release: Lebanon

Film: Lebanon
Release date: 23rd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Reymond Amsalem, Ashraf Barhom, Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov
Genre: Drama/War
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: Israel/France/UK/Germany

The talk of Cannes and winner of the Leone d’Oro at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Lebanon partially documents personal war experiences of the film’s director, Samuel Maoz.

The film follows an Israeli tank crew entering a hostile town on the first day of the 1982 conflict. With the exception of the opening and closing shots, the action takes place entirely from inside the tank, while we receive occasional glimpses of the outside world through the crosshairs of the crew’s gun-sights

Upon entering the vehicle, Israeli tank-commander Asi familiarises himself with the men under his command; a veteran weapons loader, a young driver, and a gunner on his first mission. Following an air-strike on a nearby town, they must accompany a paratrooper platoon into the settlement and clear-up any remaining resistance.

Confronted by horrific scenes of destruction, and the confused parameters of their mission, the tensions inside the tank increase. The confined space – worsened by the addition of a corpse and a prisoner – takes its toll on the men, physically and mentally, and as they battle with each other, the enemy, and their environment, the true horrors of war begin to dawn.

Realising they may have gone off-mission, and with the enemy bearing down upon them, the men must fight for their lives…

Lebanon is an unrelentingly tough viewing experience, but one that offers rich rewards. Despite the motif of characters stuck in an enclosed space being done a number of times in cinema history (in a war context,. most memorably in the stage-plays Journey’s End and The Long And The Short And Tall, both of which have received movie adaptations) Lebanon maintained a refreshingly original feel throughout.

The tensions and interactions between the crew make for compelling drama, delivered with stunning conviction from an excellent cast. Each of the crew are presented as developed, three-dimensional characters, and while the issues they face are common in war films – the gunner, for instance, struggles with the morality of killing people – the setting and levels of emotional engagement ensure that the film rises above stereotype or cliché. Other characters occasionally enter the tank, such as the crew’s superior officer, a Syrian prisoner, and a Phalangist, with each being a catalyst that worsens the relationship between the crewmen as well as offering diversity in the dialogue.

Visually, the film shocks and frustrates. Maoz captures the claustrophobic horror of the setting superbly, presenting a richly textured depiction of the sights, smells and suffering inside the vehicle. The engines deafen, dust and fumes fill the air, and you can almost smell the blood, sweat, and urine. Despite the grim reality, there is still great artistry within the direction; for example, the arresting sight of blood-like oil slowly running down the vehicle’s walls, as if the tank itself were alive and bleeding. Indeed, the machine ultimately becomes a character in itself, so affective is its personification.

However, although everything inside the tank is delivered with nightmarish perfection, the film fails when looking at the outside world. These come solely through the crew’s cross-hairs – accompanied by the sound of the turret moving along with the camera – and although disturbing and upsetting, they lacked any form of subtlety. Examples included a close-up of a painting of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, before a woman and her child are forced in front by a Syrian soldier; a situation the tank’s gunner is ordered to fire into. Another instance involved the camera/gun-sight zooming in on a seemingly dead donkey, only to see it is still breathing, and when it blinks, a tear rolls down its face. While these hammered home the anti-war message of the film, they felt so staged and heavy-handed that it belied the realism of the action inside the tank. The images, constant close-ups, and lingering shots seemed to underestimate the audience’s intelligence, as if they would not understand the movie’s message if presented in a subtle manner.

Despite these flaws, the film must be applauded for its attempt to show that war affects and brings suffering to both sides, and its impartial outlook contrasts nicely to other war movies that are often overly biased to one side. The film is supposedly based on many of Moaz’s personal experiences during the war, and it should be further commended for its unflinchingly real representation of warfare that makes for compelling, if exhausting, cinema.

The contradictory treatment of the visuals ultimately left the film feeling uneven, but it remains a highly worthwhile viewing experience, horrific and gripping in equal measure, with instances of imaginative direction and superb performances. CD

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