This slow and absorbing Israeli allegory of the futility of war and the inevitability of fate isn’t quite what it seems. The synopsis – “a troubled family must face the facts when something goes terribly wrong at their son’s desolate military post” – somehow undersells a story that is much richer and more poignant than this.
Director Samuel Maoz based the initial premise on his own experience when he feared for the life of his daughter in a terrorist attack and confronted his own culpability. Divided into three acts, we first see the impact on Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) when officers appear at his door to announce the death, “in the line of duty”, of his soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray). He explodes with suppressed fury, something we suspect is not far beneath the surface for him. In this act, the sets and camerawork remind me of Kaurismaki with graphic lines, self-conscious camera movements and unusual viewpoints. All is black and grey and white and Michael, like the decor, seems leached of warmth and colour.
The second act is Jonathan’s experience on a remote outpost. The mood of the film changes with music, quirky moments and a sense of bored futility to the day-to-day life of the four men stationed there. We get a sense of Jonathan but there is little dialogue and not much action. I found myself wondering what on earth the point of the film is and then, one hour in, something happens. It is shocking and sparingly but profoundly told. The third act, centred around Jonathan’s mother Daphna (Sarah Adler), brings all the threads together and, although it lacks the drama of the first acts, it reveals the central theme.
Entered in to competition at the Academy Awards and winning the Grand Jury prize at Venice, the film was denounced by the Israeli government – when you see it, you’ll understand why. This film does not show the continued military conflict in the Middle East in a positive light, not because of the rightness of causes or ideologies but because of its futility and the damage it causes to every individual, normalising violence, death and disconnection from others.
It felt, for the most part, also a meditation on the masculinity of it all, the necessary separation from emotion – “We are men, after all.” It is a sorrowful tale, told mainly through imagery and sound and a measured, methodical restraint.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.