The Tarnished Souls

in 66th Venice International Film Festival

by Paulo Portugal

“On June 6, at 6:15, I killed a man for the first time in my life.” With this precise historical note, Samuel Maoz, the veteran soldier turned director, opens his statement on Lebanon, the deserved winner of this year’s Venice Film Festival. The experience could easily be compared to an adrenaline rush that lasts for 90 minutes. Mainly because the entire film, with the exception of two brief, open air, and poetic moments, is set entirely inside an Israeli tank off the border of Lebanon. We feel the noises, stress, anguish and almost the smells of near death situations. This is the very beginning of the first invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it could easily depict any other war.

During that time, we confront life and death through the eyes of four young soldiers who experiment real combat situations for the first time, but mainly through the periscope eye of their target cannon. And what we see is the face of death through the target of the cannon.

There’s a bunch of great performances, with actors fully committed in the face of sheer terror. Perhaps, that’s why they don’t have the opportunity to experiment with truly emotional feelings. They are Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander of the tank, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), in charge with the loading of the cannon; the stressed driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov) and Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the new gunner. These twenty-something innocent boys inside a killing machine face the dilemma of obeying direct orders of their superiors and using their predatory instincts, even if it’s often too hard to overcome that step.

In the most stressful moment of the film, Yigal hesitates to shoot a civilian before he starts to shoot and injure some Israeli soldiers. Reality takes another step forward when the group is faced with the necessity of taking care of a wounded soldier brought inside the tank. On the escalation of fear, contradictions and chaos, we evaluate the absurdity of it all.

During the festival, we took an opportunity to chat with Samuel Maoz, who explained that “we cannot be in hell without tasting it.” When Samuel took his first life he was the same age as these soldiers. Living in his private hell for twenty-five years, he finally decided to put everything on paper and began writing Lebanon. However, during the long creative process, he had to overcome several challenges: from the memories of the “smell of burning flesh” to the persistent feeling of denial.

“I wrote Lebanon straight from my gut”, he states in his notes. “No intellectual cognition charted my path. My memory of the events themselves had become dim and blurred. Scripting conventions such as introductions, character backgrounds and dramatic structure did not concern me. What remained fresh and bleeding was the emotional memory. I wrote what I felt.” For those who felt that the film lacked conventional narrative emotions, Maoz suggests his own “emotional wounds” and those of “the slaughtered souls”, buried but much, much deeper.

Lebanon is a great piece of filmmaking. We stop breathing each time the camera/cannon searches the horizon. But it looks like it’s trying to run away from all the action. The concept of huis clos brings the audience inside the action with the subjective camera, but maybe we just don’t want that experience. Lebanon is a great action movie, but instead of political agendas or comprehensive fears, maybe we prefer to see it just as a great movie for peace.

Edited by Steven Yates