- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

Beware the critic who describes a film as “challenging.” What he really means is that the work in question is pretentious — if not pointless — and oftentimes the worst type of art-house fare.

“Waltz With Bashir” is a challenging film in the best sense of the word. It asks questions about the nature of memory and life during a time of war without providing any pat answers. It’s ambiguous in its discussion of the moral demands made on soldiers under the stress of combat without being relativistic with regard to friend and foe. It highlights a shameful tale from Israel’s past while simultaneously blowing up the myth of an Israeli war crime.

Animated with Flash and using a sometimes realistic, sometimes stylized cartoon style, “Waltz With Bashir” focuses on director Ari Folman’s search for repressed memories from the first Lebanon war.

The first Lebanon war took place in 1982 when Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon after the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom by a terrorist faction connected to the Abu Nidal terrorist outfit. In the course of that war, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, a Christian, was assassinated by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. In retaliation, Christian Phalangists, allies of Israel, entered the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, massacring hundreds of refugees.

Mr. Folman was a member of the Israel Defense Forces during that occupation. He served in Lebanon. He’s sure he was there. However, he can’t remember anything from that time period. In order to recapture those memories, he visits with old comrades, trying to get a sense of just what happened and why he can’t remember anything that transpired.

The film is a melange of reminiscences, dream sequences and animated interviews, all drawn together to create a somewhat incoherent narrative about what life in the IDF is like. The fog of war looms large over Mr. Folman and his subjects. This isn’t a treatise on the Arab-Israeli conflict; rather, it’s a personal look at the lives of grunts and the absurdity of war in the midst of violence - Zionism’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

It’s interesting, then, that one of the primary effects of this movie is to offer a corrective to the conventional wisdom held by many European and pro-Arab Americans that the incursion into Sabra and Shatila was an Israeli crime against humanity. Though it’s true that then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon was punished for allowing the Phalangists to attack the refugee camps, that is all he did: stand back and watch it happen.

However, being a witness to that violence might have done almost as much damage to Mr. Folman’s psyche as pulling the trigger would have. One of the psychiatrists to whom he talks suggests that because of his family history - he lost a number of relatives in the Holocaust - even tangential participation in something resembling genocide might cause him to block out those events and memories from his past in general.

The animation employed by Mr. Folman bears a superficial resemblance to the rotoscoping technique seen in Richard Linklater’s films “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” but it’s not the same; it’s more stylized, more cartoonish. The effect, ironically, is to make the technique less visible and allow closer connection to the characters on the screen.

Rotoscoping, on the other hand, looks simultaneously more realistic and more obviously animated. This inspires a reaction not dissimilar to the “uncanny valley,” the point at which robots and other representations of humans look almost realistic but not quite human, severing empathy and causing revulsion in the viewer. Mr. Folman neatly avoids that trick by sticking solely to animation.

STAR RATING: ***

TITLE: “Waltz With Bashir”

RATING: R (Some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Ari Folman

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.sonyclassics.com/waltzwithbashir

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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