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Thursday May 18, 2000

Israeli Director Faces War Memories

CANNES, France ( AP ) - Twenty-seven years ago on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, an Israeli student named Amos Gitai was called up for army duty. Syria had just launched a surprise attack. War had begun.

Gitai, who narrowly escaped death in a missile attack, is now a prominent Israeli director, and ``Kippur'' is his attempt to come to terms with his wartime experiences.
The timing couldn't be more apt; Israel is now considering a return of the disputed Golan Heights to Syria.
But if appearing at Cannes is a personal triumph for Gitai - he's in the competition for the second year in a row, a rare feat - his film is less of a triumph. Drawn-out war scenes take the place of any real plot or character development. In the end, it seems more like a documentary than a movie.
Gitai drew much attention last year, as the first Israeli director to make the competition in a quarter-century. His film, ``Kadosh,'' was a brutal look at the cloistered world of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.
Gitai is a director who never shies away from tackling unpleasant issues head-on. But he often takes too long to do it. In both ``Kadosh'' and ``Kippur,'' one wishes he'd left more on the cutting-room floor.
The opening scene of ``Kippur'' is a glimpse of an Israeli street on Yom Kippur. It is a strong image; Yom Kippur is the one day when Israel shuts down completely. On normally bustling streets, there isn't a car to be seen.
Then the film shifts to an interior scene of a couple slowly covering themselves with fingerpaint. They begin to have sex. We don't know who they are (later we realize the man is Weinraub, Gitai's autobiographical character.) The scene feels like it lasts 10 minutes. Why is it here? Hard to tell.
Finally, sirens sound; Weinraub and his buddy Ruso head off to the front. Ruso exults: ``Hey, this is real war, and finally we're the right age!'' As in so many war movies, it won't take long for such youthful enthusiasm to be crushed.
But in the best war movies, we get a chance to know the characters, so we're ready to mourn if they die. Gitai doesn't take the time to bring us close to these young men.
Weinraub and Ruso hook up with an air force rescue unit. They spend their time in a helicopter, evacuating the dead and wounded from the Golan Heights.
There are traditional war-movie images: a soldier looking pensively out of the helicopter as the propellers roar; another who suddenly cracks, overwhelmed by the horror. Again, it would have been better to know these characters more.
A few scenes work well. Gitai's slow style succeeds in a scene where soldiers are trying to haul a wounded comrade on a stretcher through the mud. They keep stumbling; they can't carry him and move forward at the same time. The scene conveys how exhausting even the simplest tasks can be in war.
Also effective is a helicopter crash. Gitai survived a missile attack on his helicopter while on a rescue mission behind enemy lines and must have engraved it in his memory.
In the film, a missile hits and suddenly soldiers are covered in blood and moaning in pain. The co-pilot is dead. A doctor treats the wounded despite being horribly injured himself. Then the badly damaged aircraft crashes to the ground. For a long moment there is only silence, until the men finally start trying to move.
Gitai makes no secret of his political motives. In ``Kadosh,'' he criticized what he saw as the oppressive nature of Orthodox Jewish life. In ``Kippur,'' he's making an anti-war statement at a decisive moment in Israel's political life, with the country struggling toward peace accords with both Syria and the Palestinians.
``I've always thought that cinema is an effective way to have a dialogue with the country,'' Gitai says.
``I'll leave political decisions to the politicians, but if someone has the crazy idea of going to war again, let them first look very well at the images of this one.''

News Update

Wednesday May 24, 2000

''Kippur'' offers gritty take on 1973 war

CANNES, France ( Variety ) - Amos Gitai's autobiographical, virtually plotless depiction of the experiences of a small medical unit on the front-line during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syrian and Egyptian forces made a surprise attack on Israel on one of that country's holiest days, is a cumulatively devastating and visceral insight into the horrors of war.

Early scenes in no way prepare the viewer for the extraordinary realism of the battlefront material, which is stunningly staged by Gitai and his team. Outside Israel, marketing this grim, bloody vision of war could be a tough proposition, and critical support will be essential. Strong ancillary action is indicated.
Gitai was just 23 when the surprise invasion took place, and he experienced firsthand the events depicted in the film, in which he is represented by a character named Weinraub (Liron Levo). When news of the attack breaks on that fateful Day of Atonement, Weinraub, a tousle-haired intellectual who espouses the philosophies of Marcuse and derides materialism (he refuses to buy a new car, but drives a battered Fiat), and his redheaded buddy Ruso (Tomer Ruso) are in the quiet, deserted city.
In Weinraub's car, they drive frantically to the Golan Heights to join Egoz, the special unit to which they've been conscripted. But all is chaos, the roads are blocked and their unit is nowhere to be found.
They meet Dr. Klauzner (Uri Ran Klauzner), whose car has broken down, and give him a lift to an air force base where they decide to join an improvised rescue team in choppers on a mission to the front-line to bring medical help to the wounded.
Rest of the film vividly depicts two major rescue missions. The first is relatively straightforward, with medics evacuating the wounded from a shattered frontier post. The second episode quickly develops into a nightmare.
Rain has turned the front line into a quagmire, and, in a quite extraordinary sequence, the medical team struggles in mud to carry an amputee on a stretcher, slipping and sliding, dropping the patient into the mud, retrieving him, trying again and, eventually, admitting defeat.
An even more extraordinary sequence follows, as they head for base in the chopper and are lulled into a false sense of security, looking down on the muddy landscape scattered with tanks. The camera is placed inside the chopper, and affords a restricted vision, so when the aircraft is hit by a shell, which explodes with a deafening crash, kills the co-pilot and wounds several other members of the team, it's a tremendous shock to the viewer.
And the camera still shows only the inside of the helicopter, with its dazed and dying occupants, as the machine crash-lands. Few sequences in the long history of war films have placed the viewer so directly in the middle of the carnage.
There follows another fine scene as an overworked but very calm doctor (Pini Mittleman) assesses the wounded and assigns them to various assistants for medical attention. In the aftermath of the previous sequence, this hospital scene comes as a refreshing indication that order and healing still can be found in the midst of pain and horror.
Gitai deliberately avoids any back stories. We know virtually nothing about these characters, except that Ruso's family is Milanese. The film's one, quite serious, miscalculation is a bookended sequence in which Weinraub and his girlfriend (Liat Glick Levo) cling naked together and daub their bodies with vividly colored paints. Apart from these scenes, which have no bearing on the film itself and which could easily be excised, the film's confrontational realism feels exactly right.
At a time of national crisis and confusion, personalities take second place to the job at hand and these medics, heroes in a way but also just ordinary people trying to cope in impossible conditions, are all too real.
Just as he declines to tell a conventional narrative, Gitai provides the uninitiated viewer with no information about the politics of the situation, the reason for the attack or its repercussions.
The ensemble cast delivers grittily realistic performances, and Gitai's logistical team give great support. Particularly outstanding are Renato Berta's vividly on-the-spot camerawork and the contributions of the sound team.
First among a long list of names thanked in the final credit scroll is that of the late American director Samuel Fuller, who would undoubtedly have appreciated Gitai's personal and yet universal depiction of the horrors of war.
Weinraub ............ Liron Levo
Ruso ................ Tomer Ruso
Dr. Klauzner ........ Uri Ran Klauzner
Pilot ............... Yoram Hattab
Officer ............. Juliano Merr
Shlomo .............. Ran Kauchinsky
Kobi ................ Kobi Livne
Dina ................ Liat Glick Levo
Hospital Doctor ..... Pini Mittleman

An MP Prods./Agav Hafakot co-production, in association with Le Studio Canal Plus, Arte France Cinema, R & C Produzioni, Canal Plus, Telad, Eldan, Tele Plus. (International sales: President Films, Paris.) Produced by Amos Gitai, Michel Propper, Laurent Truchot. Co-producers, Tilde Corsi, Gianni Romoli, Michael Tapuach.
Directed by Amos Gitai. Screenplay, Amos Gitai, Marie-Jose Sanselme. Camera (color), Renato Berta; editor, Monica Coleman, Kobi Netanel; music, Jan Garbarek; production designer, Miguel Markin; costume designer, Laura Dinulesco; sound (Dolby SRD/DTS), Eli Yarkoni, Alex Claude; special effects, Digby Milner; line producer, Shuki Friedman; assistant director, Haim Rinski. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 2000.