Visceral, torn-from-the-memory filmmaking that packs every punch except one to the heart, “Lebanon” is the boldest and best of the recent mini-wave of Israeli pics (“Beaufort,” “Waltz With Bashir”) set during conflicts between the two countries. Ironically, writer-director Samuel Maoz’s pic, 99.9% of which is set within an Israeli tank, actually has the least to do with Lebanon per se. The story could be set in any tank, any country, any war — a cinematic Kammerspiel that’s as much a formal challenge for its creator as it is a claustrophobic experience for audiences. With fest kudos, arthouse chances look solid.
The only thing “Lebanon” (set on the first day of the 1982 invasion) and “Bashir” (set three months later) have in common is that both films were directed by actual participants, who’ve carried the emotional scars to this day. But where “Bashir” helmer Ari Folman extrapolated his experiences into an elaborate structure and animated format, Moaz compresses his own memories into a compact, “Huis Clos”-like drama set over 24 hours in a single location.
The whole film has only three exterior shots, the first of which is of a vast field of droopy sunflowers slightly animated by time-lapse lensing. The viewer is then plunged into the bowels of a lone Israeli tank, at 3 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1982, as its regular team of three — cool commander Assi (Itay Tiran), motormouth loader Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and nervous driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) — are joined by new gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat). All are only in their 20s.
The you-are-there experience commences almost immediately, as the tank trundles across the border and plows through a banana plantation. The outside world is seen only through Shmulik’s viewfinder and heard only through the tank’s armor plating. When the hatch is occasionally opened, light and sound flood the cramped compartment, but nothing else is seen.
Though the pic is shot in 1.85 and not widescreen, and doesn’t have an elaborate soundtrack, sound designer Alex Claude (“Beaufort”) and his team do a remarkable job on an evidently low budget, from sloshing water and oil inside the tank to deafening setpieces, such as the sudden shock of coming under heavy fire. A subtly supportive score by Nicolas Becker, which includes almost subliminary sounds on “organic instruments,” is a further smart component.
Giora Bejach’s lensing, combining 16mm, DV and Red One material into a 35mm print, has a kind of dank beauty in its pools of light cast by a control panel or stray shafts from outside. As the main protags’ faces are progressively caked in dirt and sweat, it’s sometimes difficult to make out who’s talking, but unlike in many other grunt movies, names are helpfully used at frequent intervals.
After they’ve been briefed by hardass commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who lowers himself inside the tank for a chat, the four soon get their first taste of the slow chill of fear. Not for the last time, the tank quartet is temporarily joined by a wounded soldier, putting extra pressure on the protags’ relationships, especially between the combative Hertzel and calmer Assi. As the soldiers enter an already bombed city, with orders to clean it of PLO resistance fighters, they find themselves trapped when the tank is incapacitated and they’re surrounded by (unseen) Syrian troops.
Pic recalls many other war dramas set in confined spaces — from Andrzej Wajda’s ’50s classic, “Kanal,” set in the Warsaw sewers, to Zheng Junzhao’s 1983 “One and the Eight,” set in a pit prison — with the same blackened, sweat-smeared faces and sense of living incarceration.
With frequent developments outside and visits by Jamil and others, Maoz technically pulls off the feat of keeping the viewer involved during 90 minutes set in a single, cramped location. But he’s less successful at forging any emotional bond: Part of the price of deliberately withholding their backstories — to make them anonymous soldiers — is that their survival becomes purely a matter of abstract interest.
Whenever the strongly etched and played Jamil is onscreen, or when a crazed Phalangist (Ashraf Barhom) threatens a Syrian hostage (Dudu Tasa) in a disturbing display of psychosis, the dramatic weaknesses of the four main protags are thrown into relief. Performances are OK, but the dialogue is largely functional, and their characters are neither likable nor especially interesting.
It’s not a crucial flaw, but it does prevent “Lebanon” from having the emotional clout that would have turned it from a very good dramatic experiment into a great one.