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Review: Waltz With Bashir

Dancing on the edge
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 13, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir | written and Directed by Ari Folman | with the voices of Ari Folman, Boaz Rein Buskila, Ori Sivan, Roni DayAg, Carmi Cnaa'n, Shmuel Frenkel, Ron Ben Yisahi, Dror Harazi, and Zahava Solomon | Sony Pictures Classics | Hebrew | 87 minutes

Interview: Ari Folman on Waltz With Bashir. By Peter Keough.

The so-called anti-war-film genre has lately "distinguished" itself with a flurry of Iraq-war flops featuring earnest polemics. These filmmakers should heed the Joker in The Dark Knight (which is also a meditation on conflict) and not take things so seriously. Or better yet, draw on the black comedy of such past masters of war's absurdity as novelists Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, and on films like Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. In his animated memoir about his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon, Ari Folman does exactly that, and his investigation into the dark regions of horror, culpability, and memory is all the more powerful because of his film's rueful hilarity.

The opening scene, Dante-esque by way of graphic novels, sums up this combination of gravity and surreal irony. A pack of savage dogs races through the tony streets of Tel Aviv, terrifying pedestrians and finally cornering a man in his apartment. It's a dream, and in a bar the dreamer discusses it with his old army buddy Ari Folman and explains its relationship to his Lebanon experience. Has Folman experienced any similar flashbacks? Oddly impassive, Folman says no, he has no memories of Lebanon at all.

So like every seeker since Oedipus who hasn't been able to leave well enough alone, Folman decides to find out what happened, tracking down other soldiers who served in his unit, interviewing a TV journalist who was on the scene, and discussing the nature of memory and repression with assorted experts. Rather than contradict one another, Rashomon-like, these versions of the past seem to uncover the actual events even as they dig deeper into the mystery of how the mind distorts and buries them.

Inspired by this research, Folman's memory stirs. It starts with a recurrent dream of his own in which he and other soldiers wading naked in the sea are drawn into Beirut by flares falling in the sky. This scene, like many others, glows with an otherworldly light, its near-chiaroscuro scorched by gold tints. And the deceptively stiff animation — the antithesis of Disney slickness — brings the past to life with savagery, whimsy, and subtle detail. Folman doesn't hector or point out the obvious, and though his (animated) talking heads tell a lot, he shows far more in the dense, layered, and often oneiric mise-en-scène.

In a scene in which he recalls transporting wounded and dead soldiers, for example, his voiceover doesn't iterate the horrendous, marginal detail of blood being mopped out of the back of the armored vehicle. And in an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of sequence, Folman visits the home of a psychiatrist friend who describes an experiment in which people are told that they visited a fairground as a child and are shown a photo of the place. Nearly everyone says he or she remembers the experience. An animated sequence illustrating the false fairground memory accompanies the psychiatrist's words, and when the film cuts back to the office, the imaginary fairground can be seen through his window, the Ferris wheel merrily spinning.

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