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by Harlan Kennedy



Miracles still happen and where better than in Venice?  The place itself is a miracle, a lagoon town built on stilts.  Across the water the Lido di Venezia, home of the film festival, stands guard over Greater Venezia, an island sandspit on eternal sentry duty between man-made atoll and Adriatic Sea.

One miracle – this archipelago in northern Italy – so easily begets another.  Moments of wonder are now a fixture at the Venice filmfest. At this year’s Mostra del Cinema, buffeted by sunsets, bashed by fine weather, whacked about by wine and good food, we were in no mood to resist.  The Israeli film LEBANON came; we saw; we were conquered.  We knew it was special.  We each melted down whatever gold we had – pens, dental fillings, nipple rings – and put the wager on Israel for the Golden Lion.

A film set almost entirely inside the 40 square feet of a military tank’s interior.  As the armoured juggernaut advances into enemy danger during the 1982 Lebanon war it dawns on us – if a dawn can last 90 minutes – that we have not left, are not leaving and will never leave this space.  It is dank, dark and impacted with its own Moloch life.  The hatch-door in the tank’s top opens only to let in something worse: a corpse deposited for storage, a gibbering Syrian prisoner and his tormenting escort. Then the hatch-door shuts again.  Virtual blackness re-engulfs.  Claustrophobes, take doctor’s advice before buying a ticket.

All good art comes out of an artist’s life, by way of his heart, mind, soul.  Filmmaker Samuel Maoz, 47, was himself a tank gunner in the 1982 war.  Emotionally lacerated, he spent 25 years hoping his wounds would heal.  He tried, and for two decades failed, to write a script to help the curing process.  When he realised the scars were there forever,, his confrontation with the truth triggered the creative moment.  He took up his pen and worked.  The script was written in four weeks.  Cicatrices became cinema.

LEBANON is unnerving and unforgettable from the opening scene. The tank – or more exactly our juddering, near-monochrome view out from the tank through its cross-haired gun sight – charges full speed into a dense banana grove as if no obstacle stood in its way.  The moment wallops our perceptual understanding.  Clearly the laws of nature, motion and geography do not apply to this machine when mobilized for war.

Soon, though, the metal Godzilla is itself at bay.  We feel the panic as two successive civilian vehicles come charging at it, along the improvised warpath taking shape in the banana grove’s heart, and the gunner (Yoav Donat, playing the director’s fictive alter ego, must decide whether he stays his hand or shoots to blow the vehicles apart.  After that virtually every choice is between life and death.  Part of LEBANON’s impact is in its historical timing.  In today’s heyday of asymmetrical warfare and IEDs – of Davids outfighting Goliaths, of the have-nots sticking it to the haves – of do-it-yourself booby traps outwitting top-dollar hardware – every campaign and every war is a lottery.  And every theatre of conflict is a level battlefield.

But if every choice – to more hair-trigger effect today than ever – is between life and death, Maoz’s movie shows that even those alternatives are riddled with complexity.  Saving your friends by killing your foes; sparing your foes and thereby killing your friends; assuming a danger – an explosive-packed oncoming car – where there may be none; assuming a safe ally – the Christian Phalangist who brings the captured Syrian- when there may be none.  The Phalangist, a Trojan incursor whose entry into the plot proves deadlier than the Syrian’s, is the devil ex machina in a scene of perfect horror.  Speaking Arabic, he taunts the prisoner with a litany of promised tortures and barbarities, then turns to the tank crew and says, in their language, “Treat him carefully, he’s a prisoner of war.” Promising to lead the crew to safety, if they only follow him, the Phalangist then departs into the night – into the bomb-ruined maze of a city where the tank has ended up – and becomes the tank’s Jack o’Lantern leading it (the audience and the crew both suspect) to disaster.

There has surely never been a film squeezed for so long into so confined a space. It makes a submarine movie seem like a western. Only two book-ending shots are set outside the tank.  Two shots of sunflower fields, waving with the kitsch lyricism of a travel poster.  Between those poles of optimism, Maoz fits us into his iron maiden and slams the door.  The ‘outside world’ is seen only through the gun sights.  It is barely heard at all.  The main acoustic is the turning, grinding, winching noise of the turret as it changes our viewpoint moment by moment: up, down, leftward, rightward, like some robotic madman dictating our world-view by an ear-tormenting semaphore of right angles.

Every soldier in the tank is a good soldier; every soldier in the tank is mentally going to pieces.  That is not a contradiction, it is just war; or the guerilla war-with-machines that was the 1982 Lebanon conflict.  In one seriocomic coup de cinema, Maoz splatters the tank’s interior walls with soup croutons after a packet explodes when the vehicle takes a hit.  The grisly pieces rain down the greasy metal flanks at the speed of about one inch per hour.  They are like tears transformed into junk snacking, or junk snacking transformed into tears.

Finally the tension, anguish, uncertainty, confinement – the sense (again for both audience and crew) of living inside a metal carapace controlled not by us but by our foes and tormentors – become too much. The tank makes a dash for it.  It charges blind into the maze of streets, seeking an escape route, as it charged seemingly blind into the banana grove.  LEBANON says there is a limit to the limits human beings will accept, even in the disciplined nightmare of war, even if the war is dictated by national necessity or alleged just cause.

Count the conditional in that sentence.  Don’t they tell their own story?  How many ‘ifs’ must a nation muster – or can a nation get away with – when it mobilizes men for battle?  LEBANON makes the point for us, in as charged and focused a war movie as this millennium has given us.  Men are not machines.  Machines are machines.  In good times they may be good for each other.  But in times of fire, when the fire is strong enough to melt both metal and men’s minds, they are just raw material destined to fuse together in the furnace.  The tank in LEBANON, like the tank’s crew, is hero and villain at once, sealed in a symbiotic oneness, seared together for the sepulcher or, if lucky, spared for a chastened and eternally haunted survival.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved