Beaufort: Israeli War Film by Berlin Fest Winner Joseph Cedar

“Beaufort” is the new Israeli official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, due to the scandal that erupted, when “The Band’s Visit,” the original submission, was disqualified over issues of language (51 percent of the dialogue is in English). I don’t wish to belittle to achievements of “Beaufort,” a decent, intermittently powerful and touching account of Israel’s evacuation of the Southern Lebanese mountaintop fortress in 2000, but “Band’s Visit” is overall a better and more original picture.

Even so, director-co-writer Joseph Cedar won the Best Director Award for “Beaufort” at this year’ Berlin Film Festival. Cedar has only made three films, all of which have served as Israel’s submissions for the Foreign Language Academy Awards. “Beaufort” has won four Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscar) and is Israel’s biggest box-office success of 2007 thus far.

In a platform release, Kino International will theatrically open “Beaufort,” which world-premiered in competition at the 2007 Berlin Film Fest, in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in January 2008, followed by showings in other major cities.

Co-written by Cedar and Leshem, the film is based on a true story and Ron Leshem’s first novel of the same name, which won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s top literary award in 2006, as well as the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for military literature. “Beaufort” is one of the most acclaimed war film, in which Cedar confronts the difficult questions of Israel’s military strategy in Lebanon and also deals with broader issues, such as the sacrifices of young soldiers and the futility of war.

Made in the tradition of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and other Vietnam War films like “Hamburger Hill,” “Beaufort” sticks to the ground, so to speak, offering vivid glimpses of young men in combat, fearing and fighting for the survival of their lives, More specifically, “Beaufort” chronicles the final days of an Israeli army unit’s tense, painful withdrawal in 2000 from a strategic bunker inside a twelfth century Crusader fortress near the Lebanese border, marking the end of nearly two decades of controversial occupation.

Though the film contains criticism of Israel’s military policies, the political sympathies of the filmmakers are clear, which might create problems when the film is shown in European and other countries in which for better and worse the tendencies are always to sympathize with the victims, in this case Palestinians and Arabs displaced from their lands.

For the most part, director Cedar, himself a veteran of the first Lebanon war, portrays the everyday lives of a group of disparate soldiers, who are trying to obey orders and do their jobs as best as they caneven if they do not always agree with their superiors’ dictates, during a crucial time: the last few weeks prior to their withdrawal.

In the opening, a title card explains that a stone fortress, known as Beaufort, was built by the Crusaders in the twelfth century. A modern outpost was built next to the ancient castle in the twentieth century that was taken from the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1982 by the Israeli Defense Force. The outpost was then further fortified, guarded and kept right up until the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Set during the last weeks of the Israeli occupation, we witness mortars from the Hezbollah troops fall regularly on the camp. The few dozen soldiers at the fort are under the command of 22-year-old Liraz Liberti (Oshri Cohen, who starred in Cedar’s previous feature, “Campfire”). The story benefits from its sympathetic and appealing protagonist, Liraz, an officer respected by the men, despite his younger age and rule-obeying personality. In one of the film’s conflicts, Liraz insists that bomb expert Ziv (Ohad Knoller, from “Yossi and Jagger”) follow the plan to disable and recover a landmine on the road, despite Ziv’s protests that that the mission is too dangerous; unfortunately, Ziv is right and the act leads to tragic consequences.

The evacuation gets closer, and the Hezbollah increases the shelling to make the impression that it was they who had chased out the Israeli enemy. We watch the proceeding with fear and dread, because you know that, by the end of the mission, there will be more casualties than anticipated.

There are also quiet moments, in which we get to know the soldiers. In one, Liraz tells Oshri (Eli Eltonyo), his civilian chum, to go home early after he takes the newly arrived soldiers around the old castle. We also see the men grieve quietly and nobly their dead comrades in arms, which has become a routine activity. Cedar makes a point to show that at first both Israeli and Arab soldiers go out of their way to maintain the historical monument unharmed–until the last moment, when it’s finally a must to blow it up.

More than a conventional war story, Beaufort is a tale of retreat and withdrawal. The base is still under heavy enemy bombardment, when Liraz prepares to explode the site, thus destroying everything his comrades have fought and in some cases died to defend.

As helmer, Cedar allows time for the camera to capture in long shots the entire region with its dominant, majestic mountainous landscape. And he’s also skillful in building and maintaining various tension, within and without the group, that lead to a climactic battle, aided by authentic-looking visuals and ominous sounds, courtesy of the gifted composer Ishai Adar.

Cast

Oshri Cohen, Itay Tiran, Eli Eltonyo, Itay Turgeman, Ohad Knoller, Arthur Faradjev, Gal Friedman, Danny Zahavi, Daniel Bruk.

Credits

Kino International release of a United King Films, Metro Communications, Movie Plus production. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Geiselgasteig.)
Produced by David Silber, David Mandil.
Executive producers, Moshe Edry, Leon Edry.
Directed by Joseph Cedar.
Screenplay, Ron Leshem, Cedar, based on a novel by Leshem.
Camera: Ofer Inov.
Editor: Zohar M. Sela.
Music: Ishai Adar.
Production designer: Miguel Merkin.
Costume designer: Maya More.
Sound: Ashi Milo.
Sound designer: Alex Claude.

Running time: 130 Minutes.