Sparse but powerful, “Beaufort” recounts Israel’s evacuation of the Southern Lebanese mountaintop fortress of the title in 2000. Although there’s muted criticism here of military strategy, script endeavors to maintain a politically neutral stance, sticking to the ground soldiers’ points of view, rendered convincingly here by cast and third-time helmer Joseph Cedar, himself a veteran of the first Lebanon war. Pic should conquer b.o. easily at home when it bows next March. However, offshore it may face more uncertain fortunes of war given its impartiality won’t chime with frequently anti-Israeli sensibilities of arthouse auds, especially in Europe.
Opening crawl helpfully explains that a stone fortress known as Beaufort (or “Shqif Arnun” in Arabic) was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Next to the ancient castle, a modern outpost was built in the 20th century that was wrenched from the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982 by the Israeli Defense Force, fortified further, and held right up until the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Plot here unfolds over the last couple weeks of the Israeli occupation. Mortars from the Hezbollah troops in the neighboring hills fall regularly on the camp. The few dozen soldiers at the fort are under the command of 22-year-old Liraz Liberti (Oshri Cohen, from helmer Cedar’s previous, “Campfire”). Liraz is largely respected by the men, despite his youth and tendency to be a bit rulebound, demonstrated when he insists bomb-disposal expert Ziv (Ohad Knoller, from “Yossi and Jagger”) follow headquarters’ plan to disable and recover a landmine on the road, even though Ziv thinks the mission isn’t safe. Tragically, it turns out Ziv was right.
As the evacuation day grows tantalizingly closer, Hezbollah increases the shelling in order to make it look like they chased the Israelis out. Liraz tells Oshri (Eli Eltonyo), his friend from civilian life, that he can go home early after he takes the newer men on a jaunt round the old castle (which both sides in the war endeavor to leave unharmed), a peaceful interlude that allows the supporting characters space to get more fleshed out.
Several will be dead by the end of the film.
Helmer Cedar demonstrates a cool hand, confidently building suspense and tension between the attacks that still comes as shocks when they arrive. (Sound design by Alex Claude is excellent.) Likewise, filmmakers reap more aud empathy by showing restraint in scenes where the characters grieve quietly for their fallen comrades.
By extension, script honors the complexity of the men’s varied reactions and interpretations of the situation without taking any obvious sides. Medic Koris (Itay Tiran) is the most outspoken against the futility of staying on. Liraz concedes he’s got a point but has become strangely attached to the fort, and finds himself hesitating when it’s time to finally blow it to smithereens.
As if in sympathy with Liraz’s point of view, camera lingers in quieter moments over the majestic mountain landscape. When the final conflagration comes, it’s a doozy, a one-take wonder that involved the destruction of the custom-built set in Israel. Understated, mostly minimalist score by Ishai Adar, swelling to orchestral fullness at the climax, is outstanding.