2008-01-18 (Limited release)

I’ve been hearing stories about this mountain my entire life. I had to see it.

— Ziv (Ohad Knoller)

In Beaufort, war is endless. Even when missions are completed and troops head home, the film submits, attendant losses, memories, and regrets linger. Set almost entirely at Beaufort Castle, the 12th-century Crusaders’ fort captured by Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the movie lays out what’s at stake for troops instructed to hold the position until they’re told to abandon it.

It’s 2000, and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is poised to leave the fort, last emblem of the 18-year war with Lebanon. In the meantime, Hezbollah shells the area daily, the Israelis noting each assault with announcements over a rudimentary PA system: “Incoming, incoming,” and then, “Impact, impact,” as men crouch in corners, waiting for the noise to stop. Amid the boredom, Ziv (Ohad Knoller), a.k.a. “Bomb Squad,” arrives with a particular assignment, to clear a road leading to the fort of a “device.” When Ziv, the expert after all, observes that the area looks “really dangerous” and suggests cancelling the operation, the 22-year-old company commander Liraz (Oshri Cohen) insists he continue: “That’s his job,” he sighs, weary and impatient, “disposing of bombs.”

Based on Ron Leshem’s novel and directed by Joseph Cedar (who served in the first Lebanon war), Beaufort is an elegant, thoughtful war movie. It uses the initial tension between Liraz and Ziv as a prism to look into ongoing troubles between Liraz and his men. Their multiple dilemmas — which only begin with the incongruity of their orders to hold a fort the government means to give up momentarily — have to do with compulsory service, lies to anxious parents, and shifting definitions of masculinity, national obligation, and generational identity.

Absurdities and contradictions face the men at every turn, made literal and metaphorical, via Beckettian dialogue set against a stark landscape. Looking for Liraz early on, Ziv makes his way through a series of science-fictiony underground tunnels, emerging at a guard post occupied by two men who regard him with bemusement. “Where am I?” asks Ziv. “As far as you can get,” comes the answer, “If you’re here, you’re here by mistake.” Ziv plays along, asking the guard if he’s also here by mistake or wants to be here. “I wanted to be here,” smiles the young guard from beneath his helmet and armor. “That’s the mistake!”

When Ziv stumbles on a dummy guard — one of six stuffed “spooks” set along the fort’s walls in order to show the enemy the place is populated and “attract fire” — you comprehend the company’s sense of desolation and abandonment. The medic Koris (Itay Tiran), increasingly angry at the lack of clarity, argues with Liraz over their functions within a larger system. He feels like one of those “spooks,” set up as a target. Hezbollah knows exactly where you are, he says. “You’re here so they can see you.” Liraz dismisses the argument, but the film goes on to illustrate it, never showing the enemy, only the helplessness of the targets, listening and waiting, always waiting — for orders or mortars.

The circumstances only become more illogical as the fort’s days are officially (but secretly) numbered. Instructed to start getting rid of equipment, but not informed which elements are “vital” or not, the men begin a haphazard process of junking or sending out materiel even as they keep watch over the site. As Liraz tries to keep control of the process, he contends with the men’s frustrations, conversations punctuated by the sounds of mortars landing, occasional fires, and inevitable deaths. They question Liraz’s longtime friend Oshri (Eli Eltonyo), wondering about the commander’s romantic history, his decision to carry his weapon even when on leave, or his persistent emotional distance.

They can’t figure him, and the film doesn’t grant you much more access to Liraz’s thinking. As a television reporter lays out Hezbollah’s apparent strategy (to “cause the IDF losses so that the retreat planned in a few months will appear as the flight of a beaten, defeated Israeli army”), Liraz stands apart from his men, crowded around the TV, the camera pulling out to underscore his difference and isolation, as well as his inability to make a decision — by decree of the command structure. When he meets with his commanders, they tell him to keep on, though they have “no solution” for the enemy’s recent change in tactic, to target the guard posts with advanced anti-tank missiles. Furious at the idea that the men are supposed to wait to be attacked and have no part in retribution, or any sort of fighting, Liraz asserts, “We’ve become an army of pussies.” The commanders tell him it’s too bad, but he’s not involved in the broader decision-making process. “This discussion is at outpost level,” says one. “Other plans” will be made elsewhere.

Liraz’s visible frustration here doesn’t make him noble, or even reveal his own moral or emotional inclinations. In fact, the movie shows him repeatedly making wrong choices or risking men by his indecision. Still, Beaufort doesn’t judge his actions as much as it situates him, as a victim and a product of a system that has been in place for thousands of years, a system the castle represents and also parodies. When Liraz talks with an older soldier, a participant in the 1982 war, “the conquest battle,” he yearns for a sign of a better time, when fighting was meaningful, when “there was an enemy, a goal, a purpose.” Back then, he imagines, was not like now, “Not like dying in a guard post and being called cannon fodder, being told it’s worthless, ‘We’re leaving in a minute anyway.'” The veteran looks back at Liraz sadly: “They said the same thing then, too.”

Punctuated by claustrophobic shots of the men making their way through fortified tunnels or hunkered into their bunks, Beaufort offers little in the way of “action.” It is, instead, a film about pain and delay, brief intimacy and enduring loss. The war — all war — is about waiting — for strategic decisions to be made, for missiles to hit, for vaguely defined missions to end. It’s not that the war is lost, but that it can never be won.

RATING 8 / 10