On September 14, 1982, Bashir Gemayel, a leader of the Christian Phalange party in Lebanon and chief commander of the Lebanese militia, was killed when a bomb ripped through Phalangist headquarters. Days later, the Christian militia retaliated by killing hundreds or thousands (the numbers are still in dispute) of innocent civilians. The Israeli Defense Force was then in control of Beirut, and in a confusing series of events the IDF surrounded Beirut's Palestinian refugee camps but then allowed the Christian Phalangists into the Sabra and Shatila camps. The militia subsequently massacred all of the people inside. A later Israeli government investigation ruled that Israel was indirectly responsible, and under public pressure Ariel Sharon resigned as head of the Defense Ministry.
Like "Persepolis," Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir" is an animated, politically-charged film for adults. Folman was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in Lebanon during the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and "Waltz with Bashir" is his artistic way of coming to terms with what he witnessed in the aftermath. It all begins with a conversation he has with his friend, Boaz Rein-Buskila (voiced by Mickey Leon), who tells him that he's been having nightmares since their service together in Lebanon. Boaz was too timid to shoot people, and so he was commanded to shoot the dogs that would alert the village to the soldiers' presence. Twenty-six, he tells Folman. He shot 26 of them and can remember each of their faces, and the film opens with all 26 dogs tearing through a city and terrorizing people until they come to snarl and foam at the mouths at the base of Boaz's apartment building, staring up at him. It was his recurring nightmare.
That opening sequence wasn't just a grabber. Folman incorporates striking and startling visual sequences throughout this psychological journey. Unlike Boaz, he has no real memories of his service in Lebanon, and "Waltz with Bashir" is his probing attempt to discover why he has blocked out the events of 1982. He interviews old friends who served with him (real people whose names are used)--people like Dror Harazi, who plays himself, and Ori Sivan, who also gives voice to his own character. He speaks with a psychologist, too, and while memory is always selective and the "truth" of a past event may never be known, Folman is determined to try to understand a truth about himself as well as the massacre. Questions abound: what is memory, and how is a memory reconstructed as vivid and true as those that rush back of their own accord? Or are those memories somehow weighted so that they distort, the way that Boaz's dogs have dominated his memories of the war? And what of the Israeli role? Through this film, Holman also suggests that the official government investigation doesn't place enough responsibility on Israel for what happened.
As a film, "Waltz with Bashir" is both fascinating and frustrating. It's visual style varies in design, ranging from partially animated realistically rendered drawings that seem one-dimensional at times, to more fluidly animated two-dimensional artwork. Sometimes the sequences are shot through with color so that color defines the mood or visual look, while other times chiaroscuro is used, graphic novel style, to highlight contrasts that dominate color. Visually, the film is fascinating, and in terms of the content we want to get to the bottom of this as much as Folman himself. But if I pictured the same screenplay rendered realistically in live action, I found myself thinking that the plot would be plodding, with some of the scenes allowed to go on too long. But (back to fascinating) that led me to think about what animation is capable of doing for adult films. How does animation--and stylized sequences as striking as those that Folman provides--enhance content, and how much does it mask deficiencies?
Aside from a tacked-on ending that feels gratuitous and just a little facile, that's my only complaint about this otherwise accomplished film. There are times when it felt as if an inspired visual style was compensating for uninspired writing. But make no mistake about it, "Waltz with Bashir" is still a powerful film, and maybe what I just said isn't all that negative. Maybe that's the gap that future filmmakers can shoot, the areas in which a strong animated style changes the rules for live-action storytelling. "Waltz with Bashir" is shot in documentary style, complete with identifiers on-screen when we're introduced to a new character and with datelines and places in subscript, and it's much more interesting that if we had been watching Folman in the flesh chatting with all of his friends. Animation also softens the transitions from the present to dreams or the flashback past.
For a film that used 35mm digital processes, "Waltz with Bashir" has a surprising amount of grit and grain--not an oppressive amount, mind you, and nothing that opens the door to noise, but enough to notice. I never saw the film in theaters and so I can't say whether it's an artistic decision or if the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer was made using film elements instead of the original digital elements. But already I'm making too big of a deal out of it. The visuals are stunning, the colors are true, flesh tones on the figures look accurate, and the little grit and grain seems fully compatible with the images themselves. Black levels are strong and the level of detail is very good, though it won't blow you away the way that some of the Disney Blu-rays do, and that's partly because it lacks that plasticine sheen and partly because of the deliberately inconsistent use of depth or dimensionality. "Waltz with Bashir" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The featured soundtrack is a Hebrew Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with an option in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for those who prefer dubbed versions. Subtitles are in English and English SDH. It's a fairly dynamic audio, with all seven channels used and a nice wide spread across the front speakers. Even the static sequences with people sitting around talking have an audio dynamism that delivers clear and crisp notes in low, mid, and high ranges.
Usually there aren't many extras in the Sony Classics series, but this one comes with a couple of goodies. Some of the issues I've contemplated are addressed in the commentary by Folman, who says he's not sure if he can go back to making live-action films after this experience. The commentary is full-length, but Folman probably could have said all he had to say in a 20-minute interview. It's the best bonus feature. I would have preferred a full interview to the heavily edited Q&A session with Folman after a screening at one of the festivals. This feature only runs just under 10 minutes, but whoever edited it should have a scissors taken to their credit cards so they know how it feels to see things cut up. It's really butchered. "Surreal Soldiers: Making Waltz with Bashir" describes the animation processes used to achieve those one-dimensional results I described, and we hear from a number of artists and animators who talk about their roles. This was another feature that, at 12 minutes, felt as if it should have been twice as long. One of the more fascinating of the bonus features is "Building the Scene: Animantics," which shows how four scenes were constructed a layer at a time. Given the film's strong visual style this turned out to be my favorite feature. Rounding out the bonus features is a trailer, and, of course, this Blu-ray is BD-Live enabled.
"Waltz with Bashir" was the first animated film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Folman uses animation to tell a story that he quite possibly couldn't have told using live-action. It's distinctive, accomplished, and visually inspired. And while the ending seemed facile and tacked-on, "Waltz with Bashir" remains worthy of its nomination.