by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Venice Film Festival
Scene from Samuel Moaz's 'Lebanon'

War and Drugs in the Cross Hairs

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 11 September 2009


'On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 a.m., I killed a man for the first time in my life,' writes Samuel Maoz in the notes to 'Lebanon,' which he wrote and directed. This powerful and original film held its premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which closes with the presentation of the Golden Lion and other prizes on Saturday night.

Mr. Maoz was 20 years old when he took part in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as a tank gunner in 1982, and he says he came back a changed person.

It has taken him many years to confront his experiences there, but he has now succeeded in turning them into an astonishing piece of cinema. The film is not an exact account of what happened to him, but a semi-fictional narrative based on it.

'Lebanon' begins when Shmuel, a new gunner, joins a tank crew of three other young conscripts sent across the border into the south of the country as artillery backup to an elite detachment of paratroopers making their way northward after a devastating Israeli airstrike designed to clear their path.

Almost the entire action of the film is shot from within the claustrophobic, seeringly hot, deafeningly noisy interior of the tank. What is going on outside is seen intermittently through the telescopic viewfinder and cross hairs of the gunner's sights, which move cumbersomely up and down and from side to side with the tank's heavy hydraulic turret.

This viewpoint renders the external mayhem, to which the tank is contributing, both remote and ghastly in its magnified detail.

Every person who comes into focus in the cross hairs of the gunsight - from an old Arab man staring defiantly back and a distraught woman staggering into the street from a shelled apartment block, to masked Arab fighters and the Israeli paratroopers - is framed as a potential target, with only split seconds for the gunners to decide whether or not to fire.

A Syrian soldier is captured and confined inside the tank, but amid the confusion the unit has strayed out of reach of Israeli air support.

Instructed to rely on a couple of Christian Phalangist militiamen to lead them back to safety, the major in command defies orders, suspecting the Phalangists of wanting only to lay their hands on the Syrian prisoner.

Then the tank becomes separated from the paratroopers. While the tank itself is a death-dealing machine, it could also at any moment become a fiery death-trap for the young men manning it, and their fear is palpably conveyed.

The four actors who play the tank crew - Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen and Michael Moshonov - put in a superb ensemble performance.

Zohar Strauss as the paratrooper Major Jamil and Reymonde Amsellem as a Lebanese mother caught up in the fighting are no less convincing. The imaginative and creative design and cinematography, by Ariel Roshko and Giora Bejach, respectively - achieved on a low budget - transform the dark, oily, suffocating interior of the tank, its black walls streaming with condensation, into a sinister, almost live presence in the action.

This is a film above all about what it is like to take part in combat, though it does not shrink from showing an appalling number of civilian casualties. Like the vast majority of all who have fought in wars through the ages, the conscript tank crew have no time to consider the rights and wrongs of this particular conflict but are simply trying to survive.

The production is courageous, too, in depicting an operation that goes badly wrong and the desperation of a group of soldiers, both veterans and raw conscripts, who feel they have been abandoned to their fate by their superiors when they are told over the radio to improvise as best they can to make their escape. The audacious and unpredictable way 'Lebanon' tells its story will give future filmmakers much to think about when trying to depict the realities of war on screen.

Violence of a much more cinematically conventional variety is featured in two American productions.

Brooklyn's Finest Antoine Fuqua had the premiere of his 'Training Day' - the tale of a rooky cop who finds himself assigned to a corrupt drug-squad officer - at Venice in 2001 (winning the best actor award for Denzel Washington, who went on to win an Oscar, for his role as the rogue officer). The junior cop was played by Ethan Hawke, and he is back in Venice out of competition with Mr. Fuqua's 'Brooklyn's Finest,' set and shot in one of the borough's roughest housing projects.

Once again the story revolves around drugs and police corruption. The cast also includes Richard Gere as Eddie, a burnt-out case about to retire; Wesley Snipes (who won best actor in Venice in 1997 in 'One Night Stand') as Caz, a drug baron; and Don Cheadle as Tango, an undercover cop.

Eddie is just trying to keep out of trouble during his last few days of duty after 22 years on the job, which is clearly not going to happen after the fatal police shooting of a hard-working black college student has enraged the population of the project. But the most suspenseful of several intertwining plots is that of Tango, edgily played by Mr. Cheadle, who has infiltrated the upper echelons of the drug business and is at constant risk of being exposed.

The dialogue and settings have an authentic air, but feature films of this genre now face a great deal of competition from slick TV dramas like 'The Wire' (actors from which also feature here). And the body count at the end does seem a trifle implausible.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Werner Herzog's in-competition film, from a wacky screenplay by William Finkelstein, is very loosely based on the 1992 'Bad Lieutenant' by Abel Ferrara (whom Mr. Herzog has claimed never to have heard of). The action has relocated south from New York, and drugs are once again the mainspring: Nicolas Cage, as Terence McDonagh, and his prostitute girlfriend Eva Mendes (who got her first break in 'Training Day'), have an insatiable appetite for them.

McDonagh has injured his back and earned a promotion by saving a prisoner who has been forgotten in the cells as the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina rapidly rise. Hunched and stiff-moving, Mr. Cage gives a compelling impression of a man in constant pain. Punctuated with crazed outbursts fueled by cocktails of prescription and illegal drugs, his performance is manic even by his own standards, leading to some wild and funny scenes.

Mr. Herzog and Mr. Finkelstein have fun satirizing the clichés of the bad-cop genre, the violence is comic-book style and the denouement a tremendous send-up of the Hollywood happy ending.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023