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09.08.10

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Phaedra
LOST: The wayward tank 'Rhino' takes an unintended detour in 'Lebanon.'

The Beast

Heat, bilge and fear behind enemy lines in 'Lebanon'

By Richard von Busack


IT'S OBVIOUS that much of what one sees in Lebanon comes from personal experience. The problem is that the part that comes from a keen knowledge of cinema techniques—of grabbers and close-ups—is obvious, too, and the mixture doesn't quite mix.

Israeli director Samuel Maoz was wounded in the 1982 Israeli excursion into Lebanon (a piece of history last seen in Waltz With Bashir). One takes away from his film the sense that tank warfare is an especially filthy way to fight and die. And that's the mark of a serious statement of a wartime experience: you make the discovery that "this is absolutely not the way I'd want to fight a war," the same way you did when reading Randall Jarrell's poem about the ball-turret gunner or checking the finale of Pat Barker's The Ghost Road, in which World War I foot soldiers, in their extremity of exhaustion, deliriously imagine the sun reversing its course. There are times when the Quakers don't seem all that crazy.

One thing we learn from Lebanon is that tanks, like warships, contain bilgewater: an inch worth of greasy liquid slogging around the feet of the squad. Bits of food, cigarette ends and occasionally blood adds to it. So does canteen water, when, against orders, the crew douse themselves against the heat. This wastewater adds to some of Maoz's best effects: a jettisoned cigarette butt disturbing the reflection of a soldier's face; visible vibrations in it as the tank shudders through the city.

The movie is mostly carried out in tight close-up as the operation begins, hours before daylight. The crew of the tank, which is code-named "Rhino," get separated from the rest of their command. After they're crippled by a direct hit, they're trapped in the neighborhood by a pair of vengeful and unreliable Phalangist Lebanese allies. The tank's officer, Assi (Itay Tiran), is showing signs of fracture, just like the rest of Rhino's green and nerve-wracked crew.

We don't leave the tank's interior: people (a corpse, an officer, a Syrian prisoner) drop in through the hatch, though. After the wallop of a shell—shown in John Woo slow motion—the cast is sprayed with almost pressurized filth, and the now black-masked faces of the crew are even more indistinguishable than they were before.

Getting a nude scene into this kind of film wasn't easy, but Maoz did it. After the tank wastes a terrorist, a civilian's dress catches on fire and she tears it off herself. The periscope tracks her as she looks for something to cover herself with. I'd accept that gawking at a naked woman is exactly what a soldier would do. I'm less comfortable with her scorn and rage as she stares down into the tank's lens. And the cut from her eyes to a soldier's eyes makes their experiences equivalent. Right there is the old war movie lie: having to watch people suffer is as bad as suffering.

There are shockers here. The eye of an eviscerated donkey gets a tight close-up. And there's a plausible monologue about a boy's orgasm shortly after the death of his father. Maoz's uncomfortable way with dialogue, combined with the film's tunnel vision, ensures that the lines have the staged sound of a radio play.

It may be good enough that Lebanon is the work of a humane man who doubts the necessity of war. But if there'd been something else manifested here—the imperativeness of Brian De Palma, the punch of William Friedkin, who made Sorcerer, or even more touches of the "black comedy" Maoz says in interviews that he wants to make next—Lebanon would be so powerful it'd almost be unwatchable.

LEBANON (R; 93 min.), directed by Samuel Maoz, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon. In Hebrew, Arabic and French, with subtitles.


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