Waltz With Bashir views war from the inside out and the outside in. It carries the shock of full disclosure.
Ari Folman, the writer-director, was a member of the Israeli Defense Forces in 1982, during the Israeli army's occupation of southern Lebanon and the massacre conducted under its eyes by Lebanese Christian Phalangists at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The bloodletting came after the assassination of Lebanon's Christian president, Bashir Gemayel. But from the outset, grotesque cruelty marked the Christian militia's treatment of Palestinian terrorists and civilians.
The movie is Folman's attempt to recover experiences wiped clean from his memory because of the confusion of his combat traumas and his family's history at Auschwitz. Folman has conceived this audacious work as a feature cartoon in the manner of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust graphic novel Maus. The animation has been compared to a Brechtian distancing device, keeping viewers at one remove from the action so they can better ponder its savage ironies. But, in effect, it isn't distancing at all. The unprecedented mingling of ferocity and sensitivity that Folman's chief illustrator, David Polonsky, brings to his imagery, along with Folman's open-ended and inward-looking candor, creates a tactile atmosphere that holds you in its grip from beginning to end.
Many will find the movie's audiovisual density thrilling; some may, on occasion, find it wearying. At times, I wished the producers had done for Folman's film what Disney did for Hayao Miyazaki's cartoons and offered an artfully dubbed version for English-language distribution. Yet dubbing would have diluted the movie's greatest asset: its undeniable authenticity.
The movie reacquaints us with the virtues of an honest, plain-spoken narrator. Folman is a wonderful, unifying character: a sophisticated, self-lacerating observer who, inexplicably, has turned into a tabula rasa when it comes to his wartime experience. Waltz With Bashir is an anti-war movie that becomes a genuine odyssey as Folman fills in the blanks of his life. The imagery is sometimes stranger than fiction, sometimes simply hyper-real. The movie begins with a coup de cinema that has already become a classic: 26 mad dogs pursue a friend of Folman's and demand that the owner of the offices beneath his apartment give him up. It's a dream rooted in events: During his service in Lebanon, this friend, incapable of shooting human targets, was assigned to shoot the dogs who would howl as soldiers approached Palestinian villages.
Usually, a grabber opening like that renders the rest of the film a letdown. Not so in Waltz With Bashir. His friend's recounting of his dream triggers Folman's hazy, hallucinatory remembrances of Lebanon, including a vision of Folman and two naked buddies emerging from the sea at night into flare-lit Beirut. The whole movie has a liquid, disorienting terror.
War registers as a rip in the very fabric of civilization; it releases phantasms, like one man's vision of a giant naked woman emerging from the sea to rescue him from a troop ship. The randomness of battles between organized troops and a dispersed enemy, and the arbitrary viciousness of combat, have rarely been realized on film with more empathy and shock. The atmosphere of search-and-destroy missions and sniper fights pricks your skin and settles in your brain. Even during the quieter moments of Folman's crusade to find the truth, you dread the revelations of horror that are apt to pop out.
Some episodes resemble an Israeli version of The Red Badge of Courage that ends in moral disarray. War is still a place where striplings prove themselves as men even if they know they're fueled by fear. The damage war does is everywhere in Lebanon and in the Israelis' hearts and minds. Folman lets us ponder why one friend, a brilliant student seemingly en route to a science Nobel Prize, instead, after service in Lebanon, becomes the falafel king of Amsterdam and retires after three years.
Each participant in Folman's inquiry is a fully realized character with a fleshed-out point of view, from one squad leader racked with guilt because he could save himself and not his men, to Ron Ben-Yishai, Israel's premier war correspondent, who recounts telling Ariel Sharon that a massacre was occurring under Israel's watch - alas, to no avail. Ben-Yishai, like almost all the others, gives voice to his own character. He also gives professionalism a good name.
So does Folman, who never lets the solemnity of his mission arrest his creativity. The incident referred to in the title of Waltz With Bashir recalls hard guys in Westerns making soft guys dance by shooting at them; except here, it's the defiant act of an Israeli officer who executes what looks like a waltz step as Palestinian bullets hail down on him and he trains his gun on the snipers. The movie is a plea for all the peoples of the world to stop dancing with death.
Waltz With Bashir
(Sony Pictures Classics) An animated documentary by Ari Folman. Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and graphic sexual content. Time 90 minutes.