Any thoughtful film about the Israel-Palestine conflict naturally takes futility as its main subject; and acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar has a central premise in his new film "Beaufort" that perfectly encapsulates not just the futility of war but also the cycle of retribution and violence that will seemingly forever engulf the Middle East. Set in 2000, Cedar's film, based on a novel by Ron Leshem, depicts a troop of Israeli soldiers assigned to watch over the outpost castle of Beaufort, located in Lebanon. As much a symbol of pride as a necessary strategic base, Beaufort, built in the 12th century by Crusaders, was claimed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1970s, during Lebanon's Civil War, before being captured by the Israeli army in 1982. For the next eighteen years, Israel commandeered the castle, its existence as an image of superiority and dominance greatly controversial, especially since the soldiers assigned to watch it had been regularly the targets of Hezbollah ambush.
With the dubious, crumbling bastion, located in distant mountains overlooking southern Lebanon and northern Israel, as its backdrop, "Beaufort" goes on not to dramatize a mundane tale of indomitable soldiers in wartime, but rather investigates the inner lives of men caught between pragmatism and entrenched patriotism. Figuratively and literally isolated, the troops, led by the enigmatic Liraz (Oshri Cohen), while away their days and, more nervously, their nights in the labyrinthine bunkers and stone crevices of the castle.
Though occasionally the men are caught in conventionally nightmarish scenarios--the diffusing of a landmine on the dirt road leading to Beaufort; the sudden attacks from enemies, always unseen--for the most part the film focuses on the minutiae of everyday existence, the moments of forced levity between the soldiers, the simple communication and poignant emotion that occur when one of the men, Shpitzer (Arthur Faradjev), performs music on his mini-keyboard. All hope seems lost, the pointlessness of the defense position grows increasingly obvious, the attacks continue; yet rather than give up, they just keep reinforcing the base with more concrete.
Cedar, a New York--born Israeli citizen and a graduate of Hebrew University and NYU film school, is one of Israel's most popular directors, even though his prior films, "Time of Favor" and "Campfire" proved only mildly successful on limited art-house circuits in the U.S. "Beaufort" deserves a wider viewership; Cedar won the Silver Bear for Best Director for the film at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. He excels at atmosphere, creating an overwhelmingly sustained tone of hushed dread throughout the film.
"Beaufort" is a film of tense lulls punctuated by jarring explosions; an angry film mostly told in a terrified whisper. Cinematographer Ofer Inov's palette is of burnished yellows radiating out of pitch-black dark, ominously accompanied by far-off wind whistles and the sad creaking of metal bunks. "Beaufort," which follows the men up until they are finally ordered to abandon and detonate their stronghold, is exceedingly melancholy, yet consistently gripping filmmaking. And after such long, slow momentum, it ends with an image of catharsis that feels earned not only by narrative but by the heavy burden of history.
[Michael Koresky is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]