Review: 'Waltz With Bashir' -- the surreal dance of war

Published February 26, 2009 3:00 pm
Film uses animation to capture war's terror.
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Were it not for the motion-picture academy's arcane rules and stodgy membership, "Waltz With Bashir" could have made history last week as the first movie to receive Oscar nominations simultaneously in the animation, foreign-language and documentary categories. (It was nominated for foreign-language film, but lost.)

Ari Folman's groundbreaking and terrifying movie, which captures the terrors of war as filtered through memory, deserved to compete -- and probably win -- in all three.

The movie begins with a recurring nightmare. Boaz is being chased down a Tel Aviv street by slavering dogs. "They've come to kill," he says. There are 26 of them -- one for each of the dogs Boaz shot during his stint the Israeli army in occupied Lebanon in 1982.

Boaz is recounting his nightmare to his friend Folman, with whom he served. Folman realizes he has no memories of his army service in Lebanon. He then sets out to rebuild his memory, interviewing his old friends and comrades.

The interviews elicit strange fantasy and hard reality. His friend Carmi, now in Holland, recounts a vision of being rescued from his transport ship by a giant nude goddess. A former soldier, Shmuel Frenkel, tells of an incident when he shot at snipers in a West Beirut street, dancing madly amid the gunfire near posters of assassinated Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. And war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai details the massacre of 3,000 Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps -- mothers and children among them -- by Gemayel's Christian Phalangist followers, as the Israeli army stood by and even shot flares to light up the night.

Folman's examination of the surreal nature of war -- an act of mass insanity and violence playing out, as he puts it, like "a bad acid trip" -- could not have been captured any way except animation. Folman's team, led by animation director Yoni Goodman and art director David Polonsky, uses the stark animated images to blend reportage, eyewitness accounts, faulty memory and recalled dreams into a seamless portrayal of how the mind channels the horrors of war.

The animation also serves to create a distance, a prism of artifice -- similar to the animal drawings in Art Spiegelman's classic Holocaust graphic-novel memoir Maus -- that allows the audience to examine the mass murder at Sabra and Shatila with dispassion. Then, in the movie's final scene, Folman switches to documentary footage (shot at the time by Ben-Yishai) of the carnage and death in the camps. At that moment, the true horrors of war, which Folman's animation has allowed us to keep at bay, hit us with their full fury.

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Waltz With Bashir



Animation brings the surreal nature of war to life in Ari Folman's examination of a 1982 massacre.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday.

Rating » R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content

Running time » 90 minutes; in Hebrew and German with subtitles.

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