Waltz with Bashir

Starring voices of Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Roni Dayag, and Shmuel Frenkel

Directed by Ari Folman

Rated R

Waltz with Bashir opens with a terrifying nightmare. A pack of ferocious dogs race through Tel Aviv, fangs bared, eyes narrowed. Their yellow eyes and teeth match the sulfurous nighttime sky. The dream is recounted to the film’s narrator and filmmaker Ari Folman, a burly, bearded man with blinking, haunted eyes. Doing the recounting is Boaz, his friend. He has been roused from sleep again and again for years by the recurring image of those 26 hell hounds.

Dreams are central to this shattering, not-to-be-missed animated Israeli documentary, which opens on a gothic note that suggests a particularly macabre graphic novel or the corrosive pessimism of film noir. As Folman and Boaz leave the bar, they are pelted with rain as furious ocean waves lash the roadway. Boaz’s nightmare awakens something in Folman that night, and like any noir detective, he begins a search for answers. Both served as young soldiers in the Israeli army in the 1980s and undoubtedly saw their share of horrors. So the quest Folman begins is not for some external villain but a search for what his own subconscious has buried.

The dreams and hallucinations that alternate with reality in Waltz with Bashir speak of horrors too great to handle in waking life. But as the film unfolds, the dreams begin to seem less surreal and nightmarish than reality. And the film itself transforms, in tone and spirit. As Folman begins to interview friends and psychologists in his search for the truth of what happened those decades ago in Beirut, actual scenes of war begin to supplant the distorted dreams. Inspired by the vision of those nightmarish hounds, Folman is desperate to delve to the heart of what he saw during the notorious massacre in the Beirut Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, when Palestinian men, women, and children were murdered during the first Lebanese War.

Only Folman cannot recall what he saw. And that erasure begins to eat away at him. He has vivid memories of his furloughs from the war: the TVs blasting Public Image Limited, the kids playing video games, and teens regarding his Israeli soldier uniform with suspicion. But his experience on the Lebanon battle front is reducible to his own dream image of floating in the sea naked and then rising out of the water with his fellow soldiers to don their uniforms and guns. He travels to Holland and then back to Israel to interview the people who were beside him, who do remember. There is the unrealized genius Carmi, who became a European falafel mogul. The timid kid who survived a gruesome firefight by escaping into the sea. And the patchouli-wearing (worn so his men can identify his whereabouts in the field) officer, a kind of gung ho soldier’s soldier who recalls Apocalypse Now‘s bulletproof Robert Duvall.

As Waltz with Bashir continues, the people Folman interviews begin to color and fill in those spotty memories. There are suddenly images of dismembered Israeli soldiers, entire families murdered, animals callously slaughtered, and small children with their hands above their heads in a gesture of terrified surrender. The film is filled, almost to an unbearable degree, with haunting, hallucinatory images of the dehumanizing nature of war.

Waltz with Bashir is an exorcism both personal and national. It has obvious parallels to Israeli’s recent battles with the Palestinians but also to the concentration camps of WWII and to the Iraq War, which — like the war fought by these young Israelis in Beirut — was often forgotten by the people at home. But it also goes deep, delving into the nature of war itself, a vicious encounter with cruelty and inconceivable guilt and anxiety that young, naive, unprepared soldiers are ill-equipped to handle.

These young soldiers’ encounters with the war resemble those of a sleepwalker: They wander in and out of firefights and even massacres barely grasping what they have seen. It is the work of Waltz with Bashir to dredge up and examine what every war denies: that the victims are not just the civilians who die, but the young soldiers who forever live with the horror and responsibility of what they have seen.

Director Folman’s palette in Waltz with Bashir is suitably sun-baked, beige, and colorless. The landscape seems to, in some sense, echo the shock and the disassociation the soldiers recount. In many ways, that disassociation echoes our vantage as filmgoers. There is the sense that the soldiers watch the crimes that transpire much as we do, as distanced viewers helpless to change the course of events.

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