‘Lebanon': A Ceaselessly Gripping War Narrative

“Lebanon” is a unique, accessible war movie about Israeli soldiers caught in a tank battle

Last Updated: July 20, 2010 @ 11:12 AM

It turns out the movie that takes my personal top prize at TIFF already won one: Samuel Maoz’s "Lebanon," a startlingly innovative and ceaselessly gripping narrative about Israeli soldiers huddled in a claustrophobic tank during the Lebanon War in 1982.

The movie took the Golden Lion Best Film Award at the Venice Film Festival over the weekend, leading to a crowded room at its press and industry screening in Toronto, where it’s playing in the Visions section of the festival. Many people were turned away, myself included — so I dashed to another packed screening at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. The blitz was worth the effort.

Maoz uses the classic mechanics of cinematic suspense to craft an engrossing story with understatement and visual complexity. Boil it down to its bare ingredients and you have "Waltz with Bashir" meets "The Hurt Locker," meaning an accessible war movie with unique creative flourishes and plenty of thrills.

With the exception of its epic opening and closing shots, the men never leave the tank. As a result, most of the movie takes place in close-ups, creating a eerily claustrophobic atmosphere. The soldier in charge of the tank’s rocket launcher constantly hesitates to pull the trigger; we witness his discouragement in the first person, as his crosshairs veer uncertainly around the battlefield. The technique feels simultaneously terrifying and strongly engaging.

Maoz, like "Bashir" director Ari Folman, fought in the Lebanon war and seems to have a deeply personal understanding of the typical Israeli soldier’s plight. In the United States, where it has yet to land distribution, it could easily win the Best Foreign Language Film competition in the hands of Sony Pictures Classics or another high level specialty label with a good foreign movie track record.

Given the brouhaha at this year’s TIFF over the presence of a Tel Aviv sidebar, there’s something enjoyably ironic about the national origin of the best movie at the festival.