March 7, 2008
Films: It would never happen in Hollywood
But the movie is even more remarkable for what it tells us about the inner strength of the embattled country in confronting the vulnerabilities of its most revered institutions, even while the wounds of the first and second Lebanon wars are still fresh.
To appreciate this special kind of moral courage, can anyone in the most powerful nation on earth imagine a Hollywood mainstream movie about the Iraq War in which the political and military leadership wastes soldiers' lives in senseless campaigns, in which an officer freezes in fear and in which the president lies about the casualties suffered in a needless action?
If any Hollywood producer were to attempt such a picture now, not in 20 years, can one imagine receiving government funds to help finance the movie? Or a director who went to jail rather than perform military reserve duty?
Could the novel on which this subversive movie is based win the country's top literary and military history awards?
Finally, would the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences then submit such a movie as the sole representative of the United States to the most famous international film competition?
The whole scenario may be too bizarre to contemplate in America, but if, for the sake of fantasy, Hollywood made such a film, just think of the subsequent congressional investigations, the outraged protests by veterans' organizations and the patriotic outcry from sea to shining sea.
But in fractious Israel, surrounded by real enemies and with its full share of political and religious demagogues, "Beaufort," which plays out in the final days of the first Lebanon War, not in the glory of a 1967 victory but at the struggle's indecisive, exhausted end, has not only been well received but elicited a kind of national euphoria when it was named among the five finalists in this year's Oscar race for best foreign-language film.
When Israel advanced into Lebanon in 1982 in response to persistent cross-border attacks, the first victory was the capture of the massive Beaufort fortress, just north of the Israeli border and originally built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon visited the captured fortress and triumphantly declared that it had been taken without the loss of a single soldier. Regrettably, it turned out that six soldiers of the Sayeret Golani unit, including its commanding officer, had died in the battle.
After 18 years of indecisive fighting, Israel withdrew from Lebanon. In the waning weeks of the conflict, a dozen men and their young officer remained in Beaufort, under constant rocket attack, before finally blowing up the massive complex and returning across the border to Israel.
There is no way to convey the feeling of ground combat vicariously, but "Beaufort" comes close in showing the alternating monotony and flashes of adrenalin-pumping action, the elation and the fear that can freeze the best soldier into immobility, the desperate longing for a clean change of uniform, the camaraderie and numbness to loss, the confusion, miscommunication and mistakes of generals.
Much of the picture's virtual reality is owed to director Joseph Cedar, a native New Yorker who served as a paratrooper and medic during the war in Lebanon and had hoped to become a career officer.
A few years later, when he was recalled to active duty as a reservist, Cedar refused and served time in a military jail.
That's not the first or last time Cedar has played against expectations. A strictly observant Jew, he bitterly disappointed his friends of the national religious right in his first two films, which laid bare the fanaticism and prejudices of his more extreme erstwhile comrades.
Movies can be accurate indicators of a nation's taboos. In the late 1940s, I saw a wonderfully satirical and now completely forgotten film, titled, I believe, "The Scandals of Clochmere."
It included three scenes offensive to censors on two continents. In one, a husky bartender picked up two obstreperous French soldiers and threw them out into the street. Another showed some people in a church trashing a statue of Jesus. And a third showed a woman nude from the waist up.
I saw the movie first in Paris and later in Los Angeles, but in slightly different versions. The American Puritans had deleted the church and the nude scenes as sacrilegious and indecent for U.S. viewers.
The French censor couldn't care less about such transgressions, but cut out the bar scene, ruling that it impugned the honor of the French army by having a civilian manhandling French soldiers.
"Beaufort" also ran into trouble at home, but not, as it might elsewhere, for depicting the waste of life in a badly conceived and executed war.
What raised Israeli hackles, especially among families who had lost sons in Lebanon, was that nearly half of the actors in the film had not fulfilled their mandatory service in the Israeli army, for reasons of health or conscience.
During a symposium with other Oscar-nominated foreign directors, Cedar asked whether the people of any other country would object to actors, who hadn't actually worn the uniform, portraying soldiers. The answer was no, and indeed by such criterion, Hollywood could never make any war movie at all.
In America, some Jewish voices have raised concerns that an Israeli film showing the real faces and fears of the country's soldiers would diminish respect for the Jewish state.
On the contrary, "Beaufort" has set a standard for honesty and self-examination that much mightier nations have yet to emulate in real time, not a generation after the conflict.
"Beaufort" opens March 14 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino. For more information visit www.laemmle.com