Verdict: Visceral and mesmerising
The debut feature by Israeli director Maoz is a carnival ride designed by the devil. It's also a film of jaw-dropping mastery which manages, by dint of having no polemical intent at all, to be a powerful anti-war statement.
Like the animated masterpiece Waltz With Bashir a couple of years ago, it deals with Israel's 1982 invasion of its northern neighbour. Like that film, it has attracted partisan criticism for not condemning one side or the other But neither film sought to explore geopolitical or historical rights and wrongs: each in its different way concentrated on the soldier's experience, to show that in war perpetrators are victims too.
Maoz took part in the 1982 invasion - the name of the main character Shmuel (Yoav Donat) is the Hebrew equivalent of Sam - and has described the film as "a light version of my experiences", which suggests the real thing must have been hellish indeed. He says he wrote the script "straight from my gut" as an act of coming to terms with the post-traumatic stress that had dogged him since.
The film's point of difference is its point of view: the entire thing takes place inside an Israeli tank in which four young soldiers, periodically joined by others, are virtually imprisoned. Anything we see outside that turret - a dark, diabolically hot steel cage in which human sweat mixes with leaking oil - we see through the periscopic sight of the gunner.
Changes of perspective are accomplished only by the turret's rotation, signalled by the grinding wheeze of cranking gears and the tank, like some sort of malevolent robot, virtually becomes a character in itself.
This narrow frame of reference, which allows us a detailed view through the gunner's crosshairs but constantly withholds the big picture, adds to the sense of claustrophobia. In reality, the tank is a set, but it's a superheated one in which the actors are spattered with oil drips, deafened by hammer blows on the steel shell and tossed about as crew members violently rock the turret. It adds up to a visceral experience that pitches us into a meticulously recreated reality.
The way the story unfolds requires no detailing here. It is quite deliberately episodic, and has a surreal theatricality about it at times, but it is written and directed with precision and skill. It's no picnic, but it is unquestionably one of the year's very best films.
Cast: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshril Cohen, Michael Moshonov
Director: Samuel Maoz
Running time: 94 mins
Rating: R16 (violence, offensive language, content that may disturb). In Hebrew, Arabic, French and English with English subtitles