“To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of 'government'; they create desolation and call it peace.”
There is a single, indelible moment—among many others—in Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir that has lingered ever since the screen finally faded out. An Israeli soldier has run away from Palestinians who have shot down his fellow Israeli soldiers as they ran off toward the Mediterranean Sea from an ambush. This one Israeli soldier has hidden from the group of Palestinians—who successfully scared off an Israeli tank, which retreated from the scene—for hours on the Lebanese beach. Finally, as night descends on the Middle East, the Israeli begins to crawl like an animal to the water. Slipping into the soothingly lush Mediterranean water, the Israeli drifts far out, then turns leftward (southward), hoping to swim back to friendly territory. For what seems like an eternity, the soldier is a lone, solitary figure literally amidst a sea—not of turmoil as in most films (live-action and animated alike), but of refuge, of salvation, of escape. As the now-older man explains the remarkable story of his experience in the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, speaking of the sea and how he used it to rescue himself, Folman's animated sea, with the geographically correct shoreline landmass appearing in the distance like a disquietingly ominous sleeping beast, simply overwhelms the screen. It is unlike anything recently seen in a cinema—including the using of Hurricane Katrina for the sake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's final elegiac shot—and is some of the most tremendously effective suspense in quite some time.
It became apparent, as the scene unfolded, that Folman was, on a comparatively microcosmic level, doing here what he was endeavoring to for the film entire: he was inverting all expectations, all biases, all conventions, all predispositions. This includes the most innately inherent—mere, nebulous beliefs considered in purely ocular compositions. The sea has been and continues to be frequently utilized in literature, poetry, painting, drawing, sculpture and cinema to connote tumult and danger. The open water has been made to look like a horrible place to be, including in works that exploit common fear of the unknown like Jaws. Like many a tantalizing visage, the sea seems to forever obscure its more mysterious and frightening traits, including the many living things which call it home. In Waltz With Bashir, however, after (literally) bringing to the surface a huge, naked and voluptuously beautiful woman who comes to the aid of another Israeli soldier from the depths of the sea, Folman revisits the sea and extrapolates the sea's connection to people, and vice versa. Essaying migration, war and exodus, Folman mercurially pivots his film's myriad themes through the ever-present proximity of the sea to the bloodying of the Middle Eastern soil.
Indeed, the film's protagonist, Ari Folman himself (his 1982 self animated), slowly ascends with two fellow naked Israeli soldiers from the Mediterranean, like three separate forms of life moving to survive, lifting themselves out of the primordial liquid, and finally walking upright to the treacherous land before them. The animation is stark and gorgeous, with an orange-tinged yellow penumbra from the sky lighting the entire imposing (and recurring) scene. This is supremely confident, spare animated filmmaking and almost perceptively obtuse in its singular objective. Many a film has stated as vociferously as possible—“war is awful”—but Folman takes an incisively richer perspective (his own) and allows it to remain, writ small.
In another inversion of cliché, it is Folman himself who cannot remember the specter that must have been so unspeakably horrible he has suppressed it. This is a tortured soldier, yes, but his dreams are not of the actual atrocities and barbarities of “war”; the aforementioned ascension out of the peaceful, serene and tranquil into the most ungodly inferno is what he remembers, all he has allowed himself to retain. As he interviews one Israeli army friend after another, and pieces begin to slowly stick to one another and congeal, the film meticulously bridges the gaps between individuals' respective memories into one massive, oneiric painting. The accounts are all delivered through the voices of the disparate former soldiers, and though music is repeatedly used to great effect, the Hebrew language, with its guttural piquancy and ancient, embedded wisdom, supplies an accomplished auditory soundtrack all by itself.
The visuals are pulsating and powerfully pieced together. The animation is never less than wholly expert in its gradations of color—from the aquamarine blues and greens of the nighttime sojourns to the sea, to the dirty, dusty browns of so many buildings and devastated roads. Buildings and people are in scale, but frequently placed together in surreal panels that accentuate the individual over the setting but never at the expense of the film's haunting verisimilitude. The characters' faces are haunting—often jaundiced and visibly tormented. One character who has an affinity for petuly oil (used by him so that his men could always know where he was) looks like a bald, nearly emotionless gargoyle.
Waltz With Bashir has doubtless been compared to Rashomon and rightly so—the picture's competing memorial visions abundantly endow the proceedings with an intoxicating legerdemain of narrative and documentary filmmaking itself (which Folman has pursued before in Israel). Pregnant pauses in dialogue are unusually discomfiting; former soldiers, who have largely succeeded in moving past the deplorable experience, occasionally struggle to continue their stories, or have selectively edited out certain events too psychologically punishing. (Folman, fascinatingly, has done this more than anyone else.) One soldier's nightmare of twenty-six dogs demanding vengeance for having been killed by an Israeli soldier inaugurates the filmic action. Folman's inquiry into the self, into the mind, and into those with whom he shares an ineffable bond, is one of a consummately Judaic moral imperative. Just as the fear that each particle of memory may be inassimilable and useless to the whole pervades the film's most fiercely unnerved core, Folman manages to continue onward.
What finally bubbles to the surface of that alluring, seductively glistening sea is not an animated figure but a voice birthed from conscience. Not since Steven Spielberg's Munich has the Biblical pursual of Jewish ends at the expense of Jewish ideals been so cinematically palpable. The loss of righteousness for the Jewish State in permitting the 1982 genocide to take place was a heinously personal loss of righteousness for those who were charged with carrying it out. In vanquishing the ambiguously defined “enemy,” the victors in this case—firing flares and controlling the perimeters of the refugee camps for the proxy fighting force of Christian Phalangists—were in many ways the spiritual losers. The massacre of Sabra and Shatila, Folman finally reveals in a denouement of shockingly pained sorrow, may have butchered innocent Palestinians, but it left an eternal wound on the nation of Israel and himself.