Amos Gitai’s autobiographical, virtually plotless depiction of the experiences of a small medical unit on the front-line during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syrian and Egyptian forces made a surprise attack on Israel on one of that country’s holiest days, is a cumulatively devastating and visceral insight into the horrors of war. Early scenes in no way prepare the viewer for the extraordinary realism of the battlefront material, which is stunningly staged by Gitai and his team. Outside Israel, marketing this grim, bloody vision of war could be a tough proposition, and critical support will be essential. Strong ancillary action is indicated.
Gitai was just 23 when the surprise invasion took place, and he experienced firsthand the events depicted in the film, in which he is repped by a character named Weinraub (Liron Levo). When news of the attack breaks on that fateful Day of Atonement, Weinraub, a tousle-haired intellectual who espouses the philosophies of Marcuse and derides materialism (he refuses to buy a new car, but drives a battered Fiat), and his redheaded buddy Ruso (Tomer Ruso) are in the quiet, deserted city.
In Weinraub’s car, they drive frantically to the Golan Heights to join Egoz, the special unit to which they’ve been conscripted. But all is chaos, the roads are blocked and their unit is nowhere to be found.
They meet Dr. Klauzner (Uri Ran Klauzner), whose car has broken down, and give him a lift to an air force base where they decide to join an improvised rescue team in choppers on a mission to the front-line to bring medical help to the wounded.
Rest of the film vividly depicts two major rescue missions. The first is relatively straightforward, with medics evacuating the wounded from a shattered frontier post. The second episode quickly develops into a nightmare.
Rain has turned the front line into a quagmire, and, in a quite extraordinary sequence, the medical team struggles in mud to carry an amputee on a stretcher, slipping and sliding, dropping the patient into the mud, retrieving him, trying again and, eventually, admitting defeat.
An even more extraordinary sequence follows, as they head for base in the chopper and are lulled into a false sense of security, looking down on the muddy landscape scattered with tanks. The camera is placed inside the chopper, and affords a restricted vision, sowhen the aircraft is hit by a shell, which explodes with a deafening crash, kills the co-pilot and wounds several other members of the team, it’s a tremendous shock to the viewer.
And the camera still shows only the inside of the helicopter, with its dazed and dying occupants, as the machine crash-lands. Few sequences in the long history of war films have placed the viewer so directly in the middle of the carnage.
There follows another fine scene as an overworked but very calm doctor (Pini Mittleman) assesses the wounded and assigns them to various assistants for medical attention. In the aftermath of the previous sequence, this hospital scene comes as a refreshing indication that order and healing still can be found in the midst of pain and horror.
Gitai deliberately avoids any back stories. We know virtually nothing about these characters, except that Ruso’s family is Milanese. The film’s one, quite serious, miscalculation is a bookended sequence in which Weinraub and his girlfriend (Liat Glick Levo) cling naked together and daub their bodies with vividly colored paints. Apart from these scenes, which have no bearing on the film itself and which could easily be excised, the film’s confrontational realism feels exactly right.
At a time of national crisis and confusion, personalities take second place to the job at hand and these medics, heroes in a way but also just ordinary people trying to cope in impossible conditions, are all too real.
Just as he declines to tell a conventional narrative, Gitai provides the uninitiated viewer with no information about the politics of the situation, the reason for the attack or its repercussions.
The ensemble cast delivers grittily realistic performances, and Gitai’s logistical team give great support. Particularly outstanding are Renato Berta’s vividly on-the-spot camerawork and the contributions of the sound team.
First among a long list of names thanked in the final credit scroll is that of the late American director Samuel Fuller, who would undoubtedly have appreciated Gitai’s personal and yet universal depiction of the horrors of war.