“Lebanon” sees these iron coffins from another angle – inside. Except for the opening and closing shots, the entire 90-minute movie takes place in one, as four Israeli soldiers struggle to survive a claustrophobic hell during the early days of the 1982 Lebanon war.
Writer-director Samuel Maoz knows his material well. He fought in that war in such a tank. Added to the stench, sweat and lack of sanitation, the condition for waging war is one of total confusion. The almost inaudible orders are cranked out over a crackling radio and the enemy is ill defined.
The radio barks, “Shoot, shoot!” At what? An approaching out-of-control car; a naked distraught mother searching for her child on a crumbling balcony; a stinger missile, seen through the tank’s periscope hurling toward us.
The four stressed-out soldiers are gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat), driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov), wise guy Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and tank commander Assi (Itay Tiran). Assi may be the most uncertain of all, a point not lost on bullying superior officer Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who makes periodic visits to the tank and increases the chaos with talk of their mission to a mythical place called San Tropez.
Tension is heightened when a Syrian captive (Dudu Tassa) is deposited into the metal war machine. He’s followed by a manic Christian Phalangist militiaman. Supposedly an Israeli ally, the Phalangist drives the prisoner to a state of hysteria, making Arabic torture threats incomprehensible to the soldiers. The scene is made more frightening because the audience knows what he’s saying through the horrific subtitles.
In the midst of this despair, Assi tells a story of his sexual initiation. Moving and erotic, it is a strange respite from a seemingly hopeless situation, a human moment in a dark universe. A similar feeling comes when the periscope pans across posters outside a travel agency. Depicted are the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and, ironically, the World Trade Center.
“Lebanon” won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and is sure to win hearts and minds the world over.