Last days of Beaufort pierce Israeli invincibility

Relying on a combination of carefully wrought claustrophobia and hair’s-breadth tension, the gripping Israeli war film “Beaufort” is of an entirely different breed than Hollywood epics such as “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Devoid of pomp, bombast and jingoism, “Beaufort” cuts much deeper, searing us with a cool fire. There are casualties, as in any combat movie, but their suffering is nowhere near as piercing as the indifference evinced by unseen commanders — military and political.

2007 was a banner year for Israeli cinema internationally, and “Beaufort” received the first garlands with Joseph Cedar’s award for best director at the Berlin Film Festival. The movie was Israel’s submission in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category (after “The Band’s Visit” was disqualified for containing too much English), and is one of the five titles in the running for the Oscar.

“Beaufort” opens Friday, Feb. 22 in San Francisco. It also screens Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival and opens the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival on March 1.

Some observers believe that the Israeli psyche has not recovered from the high losses and divisive public debate engendered by the long war in Lebanon. They point to Israel’s re-entry in 2006 as proof. That’s one subtext of “Beaufort,” and although it’s a tense and immersive experience, it’s a tremendously important film for anyone interested in the current Israeli state of mind.

Beaufort is an ancient fort atop a mountain in southern Lebanon that was the site of both the first Israeli victory of the Lebanon War in 1982, and the army’s withdrawal 18 years later. Its importance was perhaps more symbolic than strategic, but a lot of soldiers lost their lives capturing and defending it.

The film centers on the last men at Beaufort at the end of the war, led by a young commander out of his depth. It would be a tough, thankless job for any officer, because the regiment knows that it is no longer in attack mode but is playing defense, and is taking hits from continuous mortar fire. Their mission is over, although no one has made an official announcement or given them a departure date.

Like an echo of the loudspeaker announcements in Robert Altman’s Korean War satire “M*A*S*H,” the soundtrack is strewn with the flat, bored intonation of a soldier warning “incoming,” followed by an explosion and a monotone “impact.”

There’s a faint wisp of “Waiting for Godot” in “Beaufort,” except with camouflage gear and without the jokes. Ultimately, however, there’s nothing funny about soldiers hung out to dry — and die — by those in power. Indeed, by the end any hint of absurdist comedy has disappeared in the ghostly gloam.

The film begins with a bomb expert (Ohad Knoller, familiar from “Yossi and Jagger” and “The Bubble”) sent to dismantle a device on the side of the main road. Almost immediately, he quietly faces off with the base’s commander, Liraz (Oshri Cohen).

The outcome of this episode is the foundation for a recurring debate topic among the troops, namely the point of putting themselves in harm’s way for a mission that the higher-ups are no longer committed to.

In interviews, director Joseph Cedar (who is now three for three after his outstanding “Time of Favor” and “Campfire”) has described “Beaufort” as a universal work about the waste and futility of war. This makes a lot of sense, especially to an American audience that will see parallels with the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

But “Beaufort,” adapted from an article (later expanded into a best-selling novel) by Ron Leshem, is an unmistakably personal indictment of Israel’s political and military leadership. With the exception of a single scene, the brass are disembodied voices giving orders over the radio.

“Beaufort” will leave some viewers pained by the depiction of Israel’s military as less than invincible. Others will be haunted by a more profound chink in the country’s armor.

“Beaufort” opens Friday, Feb. 22 at the Lumiere in San Francisco. For screening times and locations at the Contra Costa Jewish Film Festival, see page 20; for the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival screening, see page 19.

Curtain rises on 2 film festivals

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.