Samuel Moaz‘s heavily-hyped Lebanon screened for the New York Film Festival press early this afternoon, and my sense of the reaction in the room was…well, a little subdued. A bit of sneering going on. A “disappointment,” one guy declared. “Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it…it’s okay.” Who was it who wrote the seminal rave review of this?, I asked another fellow. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he’d “like to find him and beat him up.”
The problem, I suspect, is that people had it in their heads that Lebanon was going to be some kind of Israeli Hurt Locker. But as Cinemascopian‘s Yair Raveh explained in an HE reader response post a few days ago, it ain’t that. He called it a “visually striking think-piece” and “a haunting memory poem that’s more Bela Tarr then Katherine Bigelow.”
The Lebanon hook is that it’s an allegedly riveting experiment since no one, to my knowledge, has ever shot a war film completely from inside a tank. The result, based on Moaz’s personal experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is a grim, occasionally poignant and extremely claustrophobic rendering of an Israel tank crew’s 24 hour ordeal during this conflict. The idea is to make you feel stuck and trapped and very afraid, and to feel the grease and the oil against your skin and the smoke in your lungs and smell the rank urine. And you do feel and sense these things.
But I think Lebanon is finally limited by the claustrophobic scheme. After an hour or so you start saying to yourself, “How long is this again? It’s 92 minutes but it feels like 110 or more. You’re supposed to feel the discomfort — I get that — but the conceit eventually begins to overwhelm and diminish the human element. In the same way, now that I think of it, that Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope (’48) began to feel constrained by Hitchcock’s decision to shoot and compose without edits in a series of unbroken takes.
But before the “lemme outta here” feeling kicks in, Lebanon disturbs and provokes in a fairly striking way. There’s something undeniably arresting about watching various victims of the Israeli and Christian Phalangist carnage, including a dying donkey and a mother who’s just lost her five year-old daughter in a shelling, entirely through a tank lens without sound. And the disputes between the tank crew members — Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss — certainly increases the tension and desperation..
The heat, in any event, has now been turned down on Moaz’s film, which was recently acquired by Sony Classics after winning the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice Film Festival. It’s also a possible Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, assuming that Israrel submits it (although this is far from assured).
After wining the Golden Lion Maoz reportedly dedicated the award “to the thousands of people all over the world who, like me, come back from war safe and sound.Apparently they are fine, they work, get married, have children. But inside, the memory will remain stabbed in their soul.”