In war movies of the post-Vietnam era, it's not uncommon for filmmakers to make foreign landscapes seem surreal, mirroring the disorientation troops feel on alien soil. Writer and director Joseph Cedar has taken it a step further, imbuing real combat with the aura of science-fiction. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers guarding Beaufort in southern Lebanon could just as easily be on a remote outpost of some post-apocalyptic landscape.
For the first half hour, when bomb squad specialist Ziv (Ohad Knoller) is brought in by helicopter to clear a device blocking the only road to the fortified compound, Cedar creates an atmosphere thick with tension. The soldiers Ziv encounters are sharply cynical, resigned to their station at the edge of the world, routinely announcing "incoming, incoming" as mortar attacks light up the night sky like lethal fireworks. Their tunnels resemble the corridors of a space station, and the heavy layers of camouflage gear seem thick enough to protect against the atmosphere itself.
It's a bracing setup, immediately bringing audiences into the specific mind-set of these soldiers, whose situation is tenuous. As eternal as their duty may seem, they're actually short-timers: It's 2000, and Israel is planning to pull out of Beaufort, which they've held since 1982. Liraz (Oshri Cohen), the stubborn and volatile officer in charge, expresses frustration at the bureaucratic delays and political machinations that keep his men in harm's way as Hezbollah forces increase the frequency and severity of their attacks.
But when it comes to the members of his unit (Liraz calls his soldiers "kids," even though he's only 22), he has to maintain morale until the final evacuation order. The taut script by Ron Leshem and Cedar follows the unit's final days at Beaufort (condensed from Leshem's novel, which takes place over a year), and details the measured response of dutiful soldiers confronting both hostility and futility.
Cedar (Time of Favor, Campfire) spent part of his military service stationed at Beaufort, and captures the tedium and exhilaration, the isolation and fear, the bonding and rituals of the troops, and the film unfolds strictly from their point of view.
This insider's knowledge extends to a key scene when some soldiers foray to the old fort, a 12th century structure built by Crusaders that's untouched by the contemporary conflict. Outside their bunker, they allow themselves to question their presence at Beaufort, while enjoying a brief moment in the sun.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 25-26, and at 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, April 27.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.