Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Waltz With Bashir

Review by Eoin O’Faolain
Reinvention seems to be the craze of the year this year, with the unprecedented success of The Dark Knight prompting all sorts of future reboots. But genres can also be reinvented. Last year saw the success of the animated adaptation of comic book Persepolis, with its distinctive independent flavor, catering for adults far beyond the teen action of Asian anime, or Hollywood’s CGI animation which at best (and in Pixar’s case, brilliantly) adds a few references to keep the adults awake. But the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir is a true animation for adults, a film that expressively deals with the Lebanese War, and one that has received many an acclaim.

The decision to animate it may have been partly due to budget restrictions, but it was the right one. The film follows its director Ari Folman, whom after listening to a friend recount a persistent nightmare relating to the war in Lebanon, realizes he can’t remember anything about it. Starting with his own recurring daydream centering on the infamous massacres of Sabra and Shatila (in which Christian Phalangist’s, in association with the Israel army, massacred the people of two Palestine camps), Ari meets up with old friends in the army, in the hope that they can clarify what they did.

The twist of course, is that it is all true. Ari Folman recorded conversations with his friends and associates, used them as voice-over, and animated the events. And the result is startling, an animated docu-drama that bypasses the cliches of war films due to its realistic context, yet also bypassing the harsh and uncomfortable experience of war-based documentaries.

The animation is superb, full of strong colors, a distinct color scheme, and the framing and “lighting” burying itself deep in a sense of alienation and loneliness. Indeed, while the idea of an animation may suggest fast-paced war action (the misleading UK trailer certainly does), Folman holds back, ensuring that no viewer adrenaline will be pumping, instead picking out moments (such as the story of the photographer who could endure the death around him by looking at everything through his camera’s lens, until he comes past a her of murdered and dying horses, and breaks down) that are infinitely more poignant than anything Spielberg could schmaltz up. Sections dealing with particular battles convey a sense of panic different to the drug-infused haze of Apocalypse Now. And all the while Folman keeps a sense of character and vulnerability in mind, referring back to before the war, or in the moments of silence in between.

But the curse of animation dwells in this movie. Animation (especially anime) are often more style than content. Waltz with Bashir may elevate itself in principle due to its serious subject, but the film’s theme of the struggle to come to terms with being responsible for something horrific feels left aside by the end. We do get a sense of what occurred to Ari and his companions, but there’s no narrative resolution. One could argue that the film itself is the act of coming to terms, but to the viewer that doesn’t feel satisfactory. It’s interesting that Persepolis had a similar problem with its conclusion. Waltz with Bashir’s other problem is the film ending with actual TV footage of the massacre, dead and charred bodies and wailing mothers and wives. While its attempt to make audiences realize that this was indeed true, it feels blunt and vulgar. The sorrow and poignancy in the animation doesn’t need a grounding in reality to be any more effective, and it feels as if Folman lost confidence in his story.

Nevertheless, Waltz with Bashir is a film that is both powerful and beautiful. It may have a fundamental narrative flaw, but what’s important is that it has discovered a new route of cinematic expression, one that many new film-makers will be traipsing down over the coming years, and hopefully with some exciting results. 

4 / 5 stars

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