Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review: "Waltz with Bashir"

The words "animated" and "documentary" are not the kind of thing one often hears used in the same sentence. But in 2008 we have seen two such films, starting back in February with Chicago 10, and now Ari Folman's haunting Waltz with Bashir, which doesn't feel like a documentary so much as a vivid dream, a recollection fading into nothingness after suddenly waking up.

Part interview, part reenactment, part surreal fantasia, Waltz with Bashir traces Folman's quest to discover the meaning of a recurring dream. A veteran of Israel's war against Lebanon in the 1980s, Folman has been plagued night after night by the same dream, an image of himself as a young man, rising naked from the water with two of his comrades, to a city besieged by fire and artillery, as civilians flee in terror. It is a searing, mesmerizing images that is repeated several times throughout the film, always present and never far from memory, becoming the film's beating heart...the image at its core that set its story in motion.

Triggered by a friend's similar dream involving attacking dogs, Folman is both intrigued and troubled by the meaning of his dream. As the film unfolds, Folman visits his old army buddies, desperate to discover what his dream means and what he was seeing. He even visits a therapist friend, who suggests that the dream may in fact be a repressed memory. Even more determined, Folman sifts through the recollections of the men he served with, and uncovers a shocking portrait of the horrors of war, and the psycholgical toll on those who fight it.

It is a legitimate question to wonder why the film is animated and not a live action film or documentary. At one point in the film, he is told by one of the men he is interviewing that he could not take pictures, but he could draw. And thus the film we see is born. Folman uses actual interview tapes with his subjects and animates over them, which gives the film its dreamlike narrative atmosphere. Through animation, Folman has achieved a greater depth of feeling and aura than he would have if he had made this in a conventional way. And what gorgeous animation it is. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, necessarily, but so exquisitely detailed that at times it's easy to forget you're watching an animated film. When coupled with Max Richter's evocative score, which mixes elements of classical and rock, the film comes to almost breathtaking life. The weeping violins that accompany Folman's dream become an elegy not just for the innocent civilians who lost their lives in a violent conflict, but to the young men who lost their souls along the way.

It is for them that Folman makes his film. And by the time the horrific source of Folman's dream is made apparent, Waltz with Bashir has turned into a surreal requiem, taking elements both absurd and tragic, and fusing them into one of the year's most endlessly fascinating and compelling films.

Folman allows to to see the conflict from multiple angles and multiple perspectives, filtered through two decades of memory. They are sometimes contradictory, sometimes shocking, and always deeply, profoundly moving. He has created some unforgettable images, as easy to burn into the mind as they were into his. He has captured the feeling of dreaming in a way that would have made the early surrealists proud. They may not be nonsensical in the sense of Luis Buñuel, but they do conjure a certain atmosphere that is associated with dreams.

By keeping the focus personal, Folman offers a rare window into the conflict that we here in the West know precious little about; one of religious intolerance and racial hatred that has faded into history. Folman, resolute from recovering his own repressed memories, does not want to allow us to forget ever again.

From the nightmarish opening to the jarring final frame, Waltz with Bashir is a powerful rumination on war's human toll, crafted with a unique and singular eye. Through his film, Folman has ensured that no one who sees it will ever forget what these men went though and the atrocities that that were committed. It stands as both a testament and a solemn warning, and proudly as one of the finest films of the year.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WALTZ WITH BASHIR; Directed by Ari Folman; Voices of Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Dror Harazi, Yehezkel Lazarov, Mickey Leon; Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content; In Hebrew w/English subtitles; Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

6 comments:

Craig Kennedy said...

Not exactly a movie to fill you with holiday spirit, but Happy Holidays anyway Matthew!

Matthew Lucas said...

Thanks Craig! And to you too!

Sam Juliano said...

well, I will return to this (great-looking) review within two days as I will be seeing BASHIR.

nick plowman said...

I finally saw this, and I love it too!

Matthew Lucas said...

Yay! I knew you would!

Eblan Farris said...

Good cartoon moie. Artistically, it deserves a prize. But in substance it failes to explain to the viewers the real circumstances of the Israeli offensive, the Lebanese Forces position and the previous years of war in Lebanon which are responsible for Sabra and Shatila and other massacres. The story of one Israeli soldier in 1982, very realistic failed to explain the brutal occupation of Lebanon by Syria since 1976, the massacres between militias prior to the Israeli invasion and the role of the Syrian intelligence in masterminding the killing of Palestinian civilians to cause world uproar.

Viewers of the "Waltz" will come up with the impression that the Lebanese Forces are the only brutal party at the conflict and the Israelis are fully innocent. It completely overshadow the role of the Syrians and the radicals.

The story could have added a narrative to explain all that and viewers would have understood the same facts in their wider context. It was a failed attempt to clean up the records of Israelis who were against the war in Lebanon, but it didn't. Instead it muddied Israel further, distorted the role fo the Lebanese Forces and let the Syrians and the radicals get away with crimes.