TEL AVIV – A poignant scene in “Beaufort,” Israel’s most popular new film, shows a young Israeli commander in Lebanon freezing in fear as a fellow soldier is caught in a rain of mortar rounds.
“Liraz, get me inside, Liraz!” shouts the wounded soldier to the commander, who hovers in a doorway a few feet away, his eyes betraying a sense of shock and terror.
The drama is not about Israel’s 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer. Filmed before that conflict, it is set in 2000 and tells of the last Israeli soldiers guarding an isolated outpost in southern Lebanon at the end of Israel’s 18-year occupation.
But the timing of the film’s release last month has heightened its impact. Israeli critics say its antiwar theme resonates with a public that is deeply disillusioned with its leaders’ handling of the inconclusive summer conflict.
Popular dissatisfaction has prompted the resignations of the army chief of staff and two senior commanders and calls for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to step down as well. A government-appointed commission of inquiry on the conflict is expected this spring to release a critique that could damage Olmert’s center-left government. Some right-wing politicians say the current leadership is ill-suited to fight another war with Hezbollah, which they predict is imminent.
“It’s the right movie for the right time,” critic Shmulik Duvdevani wrote in a review of the Joseph Cedar film on the Israeli news website Ynet. “A movie that takes place at the end of the first Lebanon war, bursts onto the screens in the course of the investigative commission’s discussions over the second Lebanon war, and a moment – which I hope won’t come – before the third Lebanon war.”
The story is set in a 12th century stone-walled crusader fortress atop a rocky hill in southern Lebanon. Beaufort served as a platform for Palestinian rocket attacks on northern Israel before the country’s 1982 invasion and, in a battle celebrated in the Jewish state, became one of the first targets captured in that offensive.
As the occupation claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and triggered antiwar protests at home, Israel pulled its army out of southern Lebanon and demolished its outposts, including the one in Beaufort.
“What was once a symbol of victory and bravery turned into a symbol of stupidity, of futile battles, and of waste of human life,” a casually dressed Cedar, 38, told reporters at a recent screening of his movie in Jerusalem. “That transition is something that’s too literary not to turn into a film.”
Based on real events but featuring fictional characters, “Beaufort” has become one of Israel’s top-grossing features in 25 years. It was released March 8.
The movie also has won acclaim abroad. In February, Cedar, a New York native who grew up in Jerusalem, became the first Israeli to win the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. “Beaufort” is expected to be released in the United States this year.
Cedar got the idea for the movie in 2001 after reading a fictional monologue by Israeli writer Ron Leshem about an officer’s fears and experiences in Beaufort. The article, based on interviews of many soldiers who served at the outpost, led Cedar, who lost two comrades during his nine-month army service in Lebanon in the late 1980s, to confront his fears as a young soldier.
He later met Leshem, and the two decided to join forces and adapt the article into a movie script.
“Beaufort” centers on Liraz, the controlling and overly private outpost commander. Amid speculation of an imminent withdrawal from Lebanon, Liraz and his subordinates wage a daily struggle to survive mortar attacks by an invisible enemy. The troops live in grim conditions within a concrete maze of underground tunnels, bunkers and observation posts.
As they watch comrades die, the soldiers confront their fears and become skeptical about the purpose of their mission. They question the decision to risk their lives to protect Beaufort and challenge the authority of Liraz, who ignores the impending evacuation until he is assigned to dismantle and blow up the outpost.
“We wrote an antiwar story whose hero is pro-war until the last moment, and he doesn’t understand that he’s cannon fodder, even when everything crashes around him,” said Leshem, who turned his article into a best-selling, award-winning novel.
The $1.9-million project was filmed near another ancient fortress, Kalat Namrud, which is in northern Israel near the Lebanese border and resembles Beaufort. About 50 truckloads of concrete were brought to the set to reconstruct the military fortifications.
Some moviegoers in Israel, where army service is mandatory, say they were attracted to the film’s military theme.
“Almost every Israeli has got to serve in the army,” said Noam Avital, a 31-year-old electronic engineer from Tel Aviv. “Identifying with the soldiers in the movie was very easy.”
The film has received mixed reviews.
Hannah Brown of the Jerusalem Post called it “Israel’s first great war movie,” one that shows “the claustrophobia and terror of being there, as well as the vulnerability of the soldiers and the bravado they use to mask it.”
But some have criticized its depiction of Israeli soldiers as victims and the fact that it never shows the face of the enemy.
“It’s a one-dimensional movie, a movie with no bad guys,” wrote Yishay Kiczales of the Tel Aviv newspaper Hair. “We know we’re not the only ones to pay a heavy price. ‘Beaufort’ completely ignores this complexity.”
Cedar said he intentionally avoided delving into the wider context of the conflict.
War is “a cycle that just repeats itself,” he said. “For a thousand years there were young men on this mountain, either capturing it or trying to protect it. By avoiding the specifics of the year 2000, it turns it into something that’s a bit more classical.”