|Directed by||Joseph Cedar|
It sits on a beautiful mountaintop in Lebanon, overlooking the road to Damascus, a scarred, mute witness to history. It may have been built by Christian armies during the 2nd Crusade. Its origins probably go back much earlier, to late Roman or Byzantine times. It is the fortress known to Arabs as Shqif Amun (“High Rock”), and christened Beaufort (“Beautiful Fort”) by Frankish Crusaders sometime around 1140. Over the centuries it has changed hands and been expanded by successions of armies. In 1982 Beaufort was captured by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Operation Peace for Galilee at the start of the Lebanon War. In 2000 the IDF withdrew, blowing up their fortifications and part of the historic castle.
As much as any place, Beaufort has come to symbolize the futility and meaninglessness of war.
In the mid 1980s a young Israeli soldier named Joseph Cedar was part of the force garrisoned on the Lebanese mountsaintop. Cedar hoped to become a career army officer, but “I was told by the military psychologist that I was detached from reality. He suggested that I find my future elsewhere, perhaps in the arts.” Cedar became a film director. And in his third feature, he has tackled a thought-provoking war drama about the IDF’s last days in Beaufort.
As the movie opens, Ziv (Ohad Knoller), an amiable bomb-disposal expert, arrives by helicopter at the fort under orders from headquarters to disable an explosive device in the road outside. He doesn’t like the look of it, and tells Liraz (Oshri Cohen), the garrison’s gung-ho young commander, that it’s too dangerous. Liraz insists, and is backed up by headquarters. It all seems pointless to Ziv, whose uncle was killed in the original assault on the fort, an assault that should never have happened; the mission had been canceled, but that message never reached the commander of the attacking forces.
Cedar’s approach is slow and contemplative, punctuated by shocking bursts of explosive violence. The Hezbollah forces below have stepped up their bombardment of the fort as news of the Israelis’ planned withdrawal becomes known, in order to make it look as if the IDF is retreating under pressure. The Hezbollah are never seen, but we hear the whine of their mortars, the laconic loudspeaker warning of “Incoming, incoming”, and the explosions as the shells hit, and sometimes kill.
We get to know a few of the Israeli soldiers, but not well. They are swaddled in protective gear like astronauts, and spend much of their time lumbering along dilapidated subterranean corridors that look both ancient and futuristic, like the space station of 2001 as revisited in 2050. As in many a war movie, we know that some of those we do single out are not going to make it to the end; you do not want to be the soldier who’s itching to get out to see his girlfriend in New Jersey, or the talented musician whose song steeps the barracks in reflective emotion.
Cedar touches most of the bases of the war movie tradition: heroism and cowardice, fear and boredom, sentiment and cynicism.
“If you’re here,” says a soldier, “you’re here by mistake. I wanted to be here. That was my mistake.” “What do you do all day?” Ziv asks him.
“Guard the mountain. So it doesn’t escape.”
The mountain, of course, isn’t going anywhere. Koris (Itay Tiran) envisions its future, once the troops have gone, as a tourist site where Liraz will return someday with his girlfriend to show her the place they defended.
In the 18 years of occupation, over 1,000 Israeli soldiers lost their lives. Pressure grew from peace groups in Israel, especially one called the Four Mothers, to force Prime Minister Barak’s government to withdraw. In the movie, the pacifist father of a fallen soldier tells an interviewer “I blame myself. I didn’t make them understand how important their lives are. That’s the job of a parent”.
Cedar, inspired by an article (later a best-selling novel) by Ron Leshem about the last days of Beaufort, collaborated with the author on the screenplay for this movie, which became Israel’s nominee for the Foreign Film Oscar. At its core Beaufort is about the heroism of withdrawal, the guts it takes to reject the militaristic mindset that believes any retreat is a weakness. It is, says Cedar in his notes, “the polar opposite of the Massada ethos: the Jews on Massada were willing to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. The withdrawal from Lebanon, and specifically the retreat from the Beaufort, seemed to be saying that we are now willing to surrender, to swallow our pride, to leave the mountain.” When there is no point to the occupation, the sacrificing of young lives for some politician’s idea of a stiff backbone becomes indefensible.
At a little over two hours, Beaufort drags at times with its static, claustrophobic setting and thin plot. But it makes an urgent case for the futility of most wars, which serve immediate political goals that afterward don’t seem terribly important. The ancient fortress on the mountaintop in Lebanon is a powerful symbol. Over the centuries, it’s been fought over by various armies of varying persuasions, leaving their dead and the dead of their enemies as forgotten tribute to forgotten causes.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be