Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon screens tonight and tomorrow afternoon at the New York Film Festival. Tickets are available for both screenings; the film will be released theatrically by Sony Classics.
Drawn from the director’s memories of the 1982 Israeli invasion, Lebanon has somewhat misleadingly been tagged as an immersive war-movie-in-a-tank. Rather than the “documentary-style” or even Bigelovian technique that this description suggests, our 90 minutes with an Israeli tank crew are presented in a stylized and even abstractly theatrical fashion in Samuel Maoz’s debut feature. The tank’s mission is to secure a rural road, then back up urban assaults; the men are, or act like, tyros and types. The mode is what’s special—a faintly hallucinogenic two-step of close-up confinement and carefully composed gun-sight views.
Taken as an attempt at you-are-there immediacy, this is cheesy and stilted, as the script traces a familiar path through the confusion of war. But watched as a willfully contrived sensory experience, Lebanon accrues a certain power. Through fields, then pitifully inhabited rubble, then darkest night, the turret’s-eye gaze produces snapshots of trauma—hostages in a torn-open building, a mutilated truck driver-instead of a rolling point-of-view tour. In effect, the gunner (Shmulik, played by Yoav Donat) makes for a striking but often mawkish filmmaker, though of course it’s really Maoz’s distilled war experiences that are on display here, not an in-the-moment conscript’s. Inside, meanwhile, the tank is a sweaty, ill-defined, even expressionistic space of faces, inky blackness, and the grinding anxiety that induces torpor.
The sum experience evokes close-quartered avant-garde theater with periodic rear projections (complete with a good minimalist soundtrack). Instead of the crew’s bickering and handwringing, or the menacing movie-villain Phalangist who turns up, the most compelling effect is the sense of suspension at the director’s hands. That tension, and the elliptical nature of the events more than their sometimes sentimental content, is successful where the characters (a momma’s boy, a beset-upon commander), political extrapolations, and dramatic performances falter.
Lebanon opens with a lovely shot of a sunflower field that signifies not just the last image of freedom to come for a while, but, maybe less intentionally, the concerted technique to follow. And unlike much handheld war cinema, which is just as stylized, Maoz’s efforts can be recouped; it’s like the deceptively simple title, which, even spoken, connotes a place, a war, a moment in history. When another outdoor shot bookends the film, realism has become so turned inside-out that the view evokes nothing so much as the elysian fields of the dead.