There is a fascinating trend in modern cinema that foregrounds absence over presence, that trades the action and banter of old for dead time and muffled breathing. Dreamy films in this formula pop up all the time with Eno-esque soundtracks, spartan scripts, and tons of disquiet.
Many critics would jump to link these films to the stylistically similar New Wave and Neorealism movements of the mid-20th Century, but to do so is to be too generous. It is not that this new crop of movies is terribly less profound. Rather, it is because the New Wave and Neorealism were explicitly concerned with their style and this agenda conferred a great deal of meaning to their films. The new films with which I am concerned are merely adopting this template with its already defined emotional codification for some readymade subtle cinema.
This is not to say that these new films are cheating or lazy, they are just more concerned with story than style. However, I can’t help but shake an uneasiness when I watch them. As an ardent fan of New Wave, I feel suffocated by these films’ presupposition that the New Wave aesthetic is now merely an ossified marker for a certain sentiment. It is like watching a dynamic movement die and become a fossil to be bartered on the open market.
Joseph Cedar’s Israeli military epic Beaufort exemplifies this sensation expertly. Set during the end of the Southern Lebanon conflict, the film focuses on Liraz Librati, the last commander of a historic IDF fortress in Lebanon. Most of the (in)action takes place as the remaining Israeli unit is waiting the order to evacuate the futile stronghold and to then explode the fort. Quite keenly, the film makes war seem numbingly pyrrhic at best, an endless game with nominal strategy.
To be fair, the movie’s aesthetic is in line with its message, and much like modern war movies in general (see Jarhead et al.) dead time is a great way to communicate the anxiety of a warfare which is faceless and sporadic. However, after experiencing scene after scene of hushed conversation and an ambient score over little movement, one cannot escape the feeling that the style is being leaned upon to heavily to exact the intended milieu. Cedar is unquestionably a talented and evocative director and, all along, you understand that he could express the malaise of war in many other ways. He just contents himself, too much, with stylistics.
Beaufort, though, is in no way a bad film, it is just a victim of a modern reliance on pre-coded style. The acting is incredibly naturalistic and lead Oshri Cohen commands a full spectrum of humanness. Furthermore, Cedar includes many very smart filmic devices which work to their fullest. The audience never sees the Lebanese opponent military, their presence is only marked by the mortars and bombs they hurl onto Beaufort. This absence wonderfully wraps war upon itself as less of a linear relationship and more of circle.
Also, the entire character development typical to war films is happily inverted. Rather, than getting to know a few characters while their stock comrades are killed, Cedar often grants the audience the greatest intimacy with the characters who are about to be killed. We begin to understand the young bomb diffuser right before he is blown apart by a device, a soldier sings and plays the piano beautifully moments before an enemy strike kills him. Cedar, in fact, keeps the central characters, Liraz especially, at an arm’s length until the very end of the film. War is not some glorious fraternity, it is death and it is indifferent.
For all of my misgivings about its style, Beaufort is actually a pretty impressive achievement. Cedar’s reliance on some pre-constructed methods seems to be only a product of his relative youth as a director—Beaufort being only his third feature—and not of any flaw in his own ability. Much like the company which his film centers on, Cedar is full of promise and faculty. If Beaufort is a fair bellwether, Cedar should become one of the more prolific Israeli directors, if not an international sensation. Israeli cinema is becoming a very exciting enterprise and it is well-privileged to have Cedar.