HOLLYWOOD -- "Beaufort" stands out, and not only because it's a significant Israeli film with an unexpected French name. Powerfully directed by Joseph Cedar, this is a war movie about a retreat, not a victory, a film so realistic, so intense, it verges on the surreal. It's also one of the strongest examples yet of a fearless new wave that has made Israel's cinema a force on the international scene.
The country's filmmakers have come to understand that the toxic quagmire that passes for global politics in the Middle East " and the resulting sense of despondency and malaise " can translate into indelible cinema.
No one has demonstrated a better understanding of this than Cedar, a graduate of New York University's film school who was born in the United States but moved to Israel with his family as a young child. "Beaufort," his third effort " he made his debut with the taboo-breaking "Time of Favor" " was a success in Israel both critically and at the box office. It also won Cedar a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin Film Festival and was one of the five finalists in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.
Working from a novel by Ron Leshem, who co-wrote the screenplay, Cedar has constructed a kind of Israeli "Apocalypse Now," a brooding examination of the nature and purpose of war that is a tribute to the traditional virtues of bravery and sacrifice as well as a painful admission of how futile those qualities can be. It presents a war where nothing is sacred and no one is safe, where goals mutate, leaders are fallible and everyone is vulnerable to bombs, shells and despair.
The setting, the Beaufort of the title, is a real place, a stony 12th-century Crusader fortress in southern Lebanon. When Israel invaded that country in 1982, the capture of Beaufort was a much-trumpeted success. "Beaufort" is set 18 years later, when the occupation is winding down and everyone wonders how much should still be sacrificed for a symbol that is about to become history. As Cedar has tartly summed up in interviews, "One minute you are willing to die for it. The next, it's worth nothing."
Our initial audience surrogate and guide to Beaufort is the sane and reasonable Ziv (Ohad Knoller), a bomb-squad technician who, as the film opens, is helicoptered into the fort to figure out what to do with a bomb that is blocking the only road leading in and out.
As the film continues, its focus broadens to include the men stationed in Beaufort, especially Liraz (Oshri Cohen), who is the place's passionate, hot-headed commander at age 22. His unapologetic zeal for the military way makes his men feel fiercely protected and somehow insecure.
"Beaufort" was shot not at the place in question but a similar Crusader stronghold called Nimrod Fortress on the Israeli side of the Lebanon border, and the twofold nature of the structure makes the location a character in and of itself. Aside from the formidable ancient fort, a place whose multiple masters over the centuries mock the very idea of permanent military control, there is an adjoining massive underground structure constructed by the Israeli army.
That bunker-like warren, a place of endless Kafkaesque corridors, is a spooky, mind-bending locale, reminiscent of similar nightmarish structures, such as the spaceship in "Solaris" or the hotel in "The Shining."
With a place like that as home, it's not surprising that the Israelis who defend Beaufort against the insistent shelling of unseen Arab enemies are almost eaten alive by a gnawing, slow-burning tension.
They attempt to cope using laconic camaraderie and gallows humor of the classic "we're here to guard the mountain so it doesn't escape" variety. But the truth is, alternately bored, shelled and afraid, they are no longer sure why they are there and desperately want to return home.
These pressures and contradictions weigh with surprising heaviness on the gung-ho Liraz, turning his bravado into a source of vulnerability as well as strength. By awful coincidence, "Beaufort" appeared in Israeli theaters in 2006, during the country's ill-fated re-entry into Lebanon, and its popularity was in part due to the feeling that there was a lesson to be drawn for the entire nation. Not to mention the larger world.
MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. In Hebrew with English subtitles.