The true sign of a great film is the emotional mark it leaves once the credits finish their upwards scroll. It is easy to make you laugh or cry during a film but most will not leave you with a lasting emotional change. Samuel Maoz’ autobiographical Israeli war film Lebanon not only affects you during the film but even more so after, which is what makes this film a great accomplishment.
The film tells the story of Shmulik, based on the director’s own experiences as a tank gunner in the Israel/Lebanon war. With most war films you are expecting something bleak, but unless you’ve seen another Israeli war film, it is hard to be prepared for just how bleak it will be.
What Maoz does, instead of giving us a direct story, is create a mood, which grounds the film. While this mood is consistent throughout, it grows and intensifies, keeping the audience engaged. Moaz is a first-time director and while that is apparent, it is in no way a bad thing. The direction is experimental, yet grounded and straight-forward. With the exception of two shots, the film takes place entirely within the tank. Although we do get frequent glimpses of the outside world, it is, however, exclusively through the crosshairs of the tank.
This gives us a very specific view of the war, one of self-hate and uncertainty. This film in no way glorifies war. Unlike American war films, which often are so caught up in patriotism to do any real self-reflection, Lebanon, is a film that questions the war they are forced to take part in. Like last year’s part doc, part animated war film, Waltz with Bashir, the film is self-reflective, a way for the director to deal with his experiences.
In some ways, it condemns Israel, but at the same time condemns war in general. It is hard for the audience to make a concrete decision on the politics of the film, as we don’t know why any of this is happening. The film is purposely confusing, at no time do we know where these soldiers are going or why. It desperately wants us to be in the same shoes as the characters and it does this effectively. If this were not the case, the film would easily fail, due to its lack of story.
As tension rises and claustrophobia sets in, you begin to feel uneasy. Just as the film becomes too much to handle, a strikingly effective ending hits us by surprise and let’s the tension valves go. While the tension may be lifted, as the credits roll, the haunting feeling of depression and uncertainty lingers. It is a strange feeling, one I have only felt after my first viewing of Children of Men.
This is a film that will leave a mark on you, and while it may be great, I don’t know if I could ever watch it again. It is an experience, a film that film fans should see. It is however, very difficult to describe it as enjoyable.