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In the Belly of the Rhinoceros

‘Lebanon” opens with a golden field of sunflowers gently waving in the breeze and ends with the same field with a sole, unmoving tank in it. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed.

For Shmulik the gunner (Yoav Donat), Yigal the driver (Michael Moshonov), Hertzel the loader (Oshri Cohen) and Assi the officer (Itay Tiran) these two days in the tank at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War are a crucible. Like millions of young men heading into war in the 1980s — the Iran-Iraq war alone sent almost two million men to war between 1980 and 1988 — they were about to experience that awful induction into combat and into the true experience of war: kill or be killed.

Because of the subject matter and proximity of release, “Lebanon” will be compared to “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir,” but the latter, especially, is a misguided comparison. Whereas “Bashir” deals with history, with the layers of nightmares and hindsights that haunt the memory, “Lebanon” is a movie of the moment itself not the afterlife of the experience. It sites the viewer in the partial, inadequate and literally fractured vision of the gun sights. Samuel (“Shmulik” in the Hebrew credits) Maoz, shoots the film through the eyes of Shmulik the gunner’s viewfinder revivifying, even electrifying, the cliché that shooting a film from a camera is like shooting a bullet from a gun.

Like the occupants of the tank, we know almost nothing except what the force commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss) tells the tank crew. Most of the time our view of what’s going on is partial and obscured. Often Shmulik gets distracted by the human debris of his surroundings. Often the view is so disturbing that the shot traces his shock in reeling away from the cause of the disturbance, but there is no escape from this dungeon of death on wheels. Back and back the film brings us to the inside of the tank, referred to by code as “Rhino,” building on the intensity of the dank atmosphere and the young men within. When finally the lid of the tank opens, letting in light and air, it does so with the air of a coffin lid opening and an almost audible hiss like a pressure cooker. Both of which are, in their own ways, true.

Each of the soldiers reacts to the unfolding traumatic situation differently. Shmulik overcomes his hesitancy and becomes decisive but maybe because he’s been irrevocably desensitized. Quiet Assi pays a different cost of brutalization as his character begins to disintegrate and dislocate, Yigal panics, Hertzel retreats. Like a person or a society, the rhinoceros (and surely shades here of Ionesco too, not least with the ubiquitous and unexplained soup nuts that cover the floor of the tank) enacts multiple concurrent strategies of denial as it fails. As the action continues, the smeared and patched up tank and soldiers more and more closely resemble one another.

The mechanism of the tank allows Maoz to intensify the soldiers’ experience. The “Rhino” becomes a nightmare beast that, despite its name, its seeming sentience and the increasingly organic bilge in its belly, never comes to life. In fact, its clanking recalcitrance leads it to bear more of a resemblance to the occupant of a zoo morgue than a gleaming weapon of war.

There is nothing gleaming about this (or perhaps any) war. The dark cabin of the tank is fetid and restrictive: a cipher for life or war. But this is no Israeli mea culpa. Insofar as it veers away from the intimate it shows the broad scope of the conflict. Although the tank crew seems Ashkenazi, Jamil is clearly not, nor are the Christian phalangist, the Lebanese mother, or the Syrian hostage who play important cameos in the film. The latter of these, despite being silent and having fired a shell that ripped into the tank, is portrayed as much a victim of the situation as the young Israelis. In perhaps the longest filmed pee ever, Shmulik holds the hostage’s penis to allow him to relieve himself without undoing his chains. It’s an act of common humanity that is, in its own way, awkward but relieving for an audience whose senses are otherwise relentlessly pummeled by war.

With “Beaufort,” “Waltz With Bashir” and now “Lebanon,” Israel is building a powerful pantheon of personal and historical films about its Lebanon wars, just as “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Hamburger Hill” and their ilk did for America’s wars around Vietnam. After being snubbed for Oscars twice by demonstrably lesser films, Israel has decided not to send “Lebanon” next year. That’s a shame, but I look forward to the time when Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and, possibly even Palestine, send similarly self-interrogative films to compete with Israel for Hollywood’s Academy Award.

Contact Dan Friedman at [email protected]

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