‘Beaufort,” the first Israeli movie nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 24 years, is a meditation on the tragic ironies that soldiers face while ending an 18-year occupation of a medieval fortress in Lebanon. Despite their valor, the soldiers’ mission increasingly seems like an exercise in futility. They might as well be waiting for Godot.
Even though the Israelis are leaving, Hezbollah forces are becoming more aggressive and trying to make the evacuation look like a retreat. Meanwhile, far away, generals and politicians issue orders that seem clueless or callous or both, when they even remember Beaufort at all.
Built during the Crusades of the 12th century, Beaufort (“Beautiful Fort”) has been fought over off and on ever since. We are told in opening text that raising the Israeli flag over Beaufort in 1982 had enormous political and cultural symbolism. But 18 years later, as the movie begins, it is not at all clear what leaving the fortress will symbolize. Are the Israelis leaving in triumph, having accomplished their goals? Or is it surrender? The soldiers are trying simultaneously to protect themselves, fight the enemy and leave with dignity, with some sense that the time they spent and the lives they lost meant something and made a difference.
Director Joseph Cedar, a veteran of the Lebanon conflict, co-wrote the screenplay with journalist Ron Leshem, based on Leshem’s novel, originally titled If There Is a Heaven. Cedar gives a surreal, dreamlike quality to many scenes, underscoring the soldiers’ isolation. Steam, smoke and fog obscure visibility. A disembodied electronic voice crackles over loudspeakers, tonelessly repeating “incoming” or “impact” to let the soldiers know when they are under attack.
“Ghost” sentries, dummies dressed in uniforms to draw fire, stand guard. The soldiers’ protective gear makes them look like alien invaders. Viscerally real moments of battle violence happen outside the fortress’ nightmarishly claustrophobic corridors and endless tunnels that might have been designed by M.C. Escher. A newcomer, disoriented as he emerges from one, asks where he is. A soldier’s weary answer: “As far as you can get. If you’re here, you’re here by mistake.”
The soldiers are always aware that they are occupying a citadel that has been a battle scene for almost a millennium, and even the youngest occasionally feels as though he has been there all that time. When they get orders to pack up everything that is vital, they have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Vital for fighting or vital for retreat? It seems the soldiers themselves do not qualify as vital. They want to fight, and most of all they want to have a clear idea of who and what the enemy is and how what they are doing will defeat them. They are afraid to fight but afraid that not fighting makes them powerless and useless.
The fortress is under the command of Liraz Liberti (Oshri Cohen), unsure, untested and deeply frustrated. He has a romantic notion that once things were different. But he talks to a veteran of the fort’s original capture and learns that they were no clearer about what they were doing or why they were there in 1982. Another soldier says he asked to be sent to Beaufort because his uncle was killed there, so he has heard about it all his life. For these soldiers, it seems there has always been a war, and there will always be one.
The critical and box-office failure of recent films about the Iraq war is due in part to the difficulty of portraying a war while it is happening. Perspective takes time. In “Beaufort,” as in classic war films from “Mr. Roberts” and The Caine Mutiny to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage and M*A*S*H (Widescreen Edition), the story details reflect a depth of understanding that transcends the particulars of time, place, country, politics and language. The result is a profound exploration of identity, meaning and human struggles in all times and places.