Kippur, whichwith sobering timelinesshas its theatrical premiere this week, confirms Amos Gitai's earnest claim to be the most iconoclastic of Israeli directors. This first Israeli feature to depict the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 is far more daring than Gitai's previous film, the colorful if tendentious Kadosh. It is one thing to attack the hypocritical pieties of the ultra-Orthodox; it is another to advance so viscerally matter-of-fact and doggedly absurdist a vision of warfare in a society as militarized and defensive as Israel's.
Gitai, a filmmaker more highly regarded in the cafés of Paris than those of Dizengoff Square, is no stranger to outlandish intellectualizing. Kippur opens with shots of empty Tel Aviv streets and a young couple apparently celebrating the Day of Atonement by making love while finger-painting each other's bodies. The sound of a solo saxophone provides a jazzy shofar to complete the ritual flavor. A ridiculous bid to short-circuit the movie before it even starts, this sequence is clumsy but not entirely ahistorical. If nothing else, Gitai's five-minute "happening" does serve to remind that, thanks in part to the follow-up OPEC oil embargo, the Yom Kippur War marked not only the end of Israeli "invulnerability" but also the end of the '60s. War intrudes as a most unwelcome reality principle.
Gitai's alter ego, Weinraub (Liron Levo), quickly established as a reader of Herbert Marcuse as well as a practitioner of allegorical art sex, drives his battered Fiat north to join his unit at the front, along with his gung-ho buddy Ruso (Tomer Ruso; most of the actors play characters named for themselves). Given Israel's parameters, it's not a long trip, although the men do have to work their way through a snarled Weekend-like traffic jam to emerge into full-fledged military disordermuch aimless firing and running around amid reports of a Syrian advance. After giving a lift to the stranded medic Klauzner (Uri Ran Klauzner), Weinraub and Ruso wind up in an aerial rescue unitflying a helicopter to the Golan Heights and behind enemy lines to gather up casualties and bring them back.
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Closely based on Gitai's own combat experience during the Yom Kippur War and filmed with the utmost attention to detail, this mission is the movieas well as the most radical narrative filmmaking of Gitai's career. Framing the action at some distance, he orchestrates lengthy shots of choppers landing at the front or the medics scrambling, under bombardment, amid the tanks. Nothing is directly explained. The unit's activities seem at once purposeful and randomone more contribution to an unfathomable form of organized chaos.
Order and orders are barely present, although the constant shouting underscores the continuous backbeat of mortar fire. As these long choreographed takes are deliberately uninflected, Kippur, which covers a period of several days, blends horror and tedium to achieve an abstract, modernist quality. In the most blatant example of existential anxiety, the men struggle and stumble in the mud, while attempting to carry a single casualty back to their helicopter. (When they fall facedown in the muck, dropping the wounded soldier in the process, the parallel to the painting sequence is abundantly evident.) One guy cracks up. In the end, it's not even clear if the casualty is alive or dead.
Gitai's strategy encourages the viewer to ponder the logistics of waras well as those of filming war. Are the underpopulated battlefields a function of Kippur's frugal budget (or do they reflect the overinflated budgets of more conventional combat movies)? The field hospital is even more oddly uncrowdedit's busy but not half as crazed as the precommercial rush on the average episode of E.R. Here, the traumatized wounded chat about their injuries with a single overworked doctor. Kippur is always coming up against its own limitations. The ensemble acting sometimes falters, and due to Gitai's camera placement, it can be difficult to distinguish between the various charactersalthough Klauzner establishes an indelible identity in a brief moment of downtime when he discusses his childhood in Europe during World War II.
As suggested by the complete absence of a visual enemy, Gitai is attempting to make a new sort of war film. In his interviews he has referred to the influence of the erstwhile World War II dogface Sam Fuller, who shot his quasi-autobiographical infantry epic, The Big Red One, in Israel in 1979. Fuller is the greatest proponent of the antiwar war film, once answering a questionnaire on the subject with the observation that "you can't show war as it really is on the screen, with all the blood and gore. Perhaps it would be better if you could fire real shots over the audience's head every night, you know, and have actual casualties in the theater."
Perhaps it would be best to have war movies made only by those who have been baptized under fire. In the Fuller spirit, Kippur is at once shockingly vivid and overwhelmingly antiheroic. Whether flying over a muddy tank-track-ridden battlefield or driving through the depopulated countryside, Gitai deploys chunks of real timethen disrupts them with some unexpected assault on human body tissue. In some respects, Kippuris a structural film. It ends as it startsleaving the viewer to decide whether war is an aberration or all in a day's work.
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