War in waltz time

And a moral dilemma where horror and beauty collide

Feb 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Waltz with Bashir is, please excuse the cliché, unlike anything you've seen, unless you can recall seeing an animated, autobiographical pseudo-doc political treatise-cum-personal repentance film. There's no easy way to classify it — having earned an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film, it could've easily placed in a few more categories — expect that, any way you slice it, Waltz is remarkable.

Ari Folman is a vet of the Israel Army's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an event he can only seem to recall in dreamlike glimpses. He has one especially potent vision of emerging from the bay as the silent city is lit by the phosphorescent glow of flares, but he can't slip it into context. So he sets out to find former IDF colleagues, along with a psychologist and a journalist, to begin piecing together moments, images and stories to try to understand what really happened.

The animation is similar to the rotoscope process employed in Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Waking Life, and in scads of annoyingly chatty finance commercials since. At first glance, the interview sections here are stagnant, with the stiff, jerky style of cheap, mid-'60s TV animation, which puts the viewer at an emotional distance. However, the flashbacks are jarringly vital to the story, the herky-jerky motions re-create the tension of combat in a gloriously lush nightmare environment. One soldier remembers his order to shoot dogs on sight (to keep them quiet), but their snarling, barking faces still haunt him, their eyes peering through the dark. Another memorable sequence, in which a friend recalls getting separated from his unit and being forced to drift along the shoreline overnight, with the lulling waves washing over him, is as beautiful as it is terrifying.

These moments of subjective and hallucinatory memory explain why the film works best animated; the subject matter and illustrated style recalls the delightful Persepolis, and the brilliant journalistic comics of Joe Sacco (Palestine), where drawings involve the eye in images that "live" action would make garish or shocking.

The point here is that these men can't (or won't) remember the truth of a massacre that happened while they stood by, and it leaves things in a kind of moral haze.

It's as if time only makes the fog of war thicker, but Folman's film is a noble effort to understand his own ambivalence, without asking for absolution.

If there's a complaint, it's that the aloof tone slightly blunts the emotional impact, as the mind's still adjusting until near the end, when horror and beauty (finally) crash together.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].