The intriguing title, “Waltz with Bashir,” refers to scene in the film in which an Israeli soldier, driven mad from incessant sniper fire in Beirut, dashes out into the middle of the street to fire back, waltzing with his machine gun under the watchful eye of the political posters of Bashir Gemayel, an locally unpopular president of Beirut who was nevertheless good friends with Israel.
R for disturbing images, strong violence, nudity
But it’s not a movie about politics. It’s about the recovery (“reconstruction” is probably more accurate) of memory after half a lifetime.
This is not Rashomon, the puzzle of a film whose point is that memory is subjective. It’s more like Citizen Kane, only instead of piecing together another man’s life by interviewing people who knew him, it’s about piecing together your own past by interviewing people you knew.
An Israeli man who fought in Beirut in the early 1980s can no longer recall anything but a single fleeting image, yet he’s haunted by dreams of dogs chasing him in the night, and somehow he knows it’s related to Beirut. He sets out to interview friends and comrades who were there to see if he can recall (or reconstruct) what happened and what his part was in the massacre that happened around then.
With each interview, he hears another man’s take on the events, sometimes also learning whether he was at a certain battle on a certain day, and sometimes just soaking up the haunted imagery each soldier has of his own time in the army.
It’s also a movie whose style takes center stage (it’s a cartoon), and that style is itself part of what the movie is “about.” It’s about how art and artifice are sometimes a necessary buffer between reality and our minds. As one character reminds us, when we don’t allow cameras in courtrooms, we still allow sketch artists. And maybe even in the case of memory, we tell a story rather than record raw input and store it for later reliving.
The cartoon style (in which video cameras capture the performances and animators then trace and enhance the scene) has been done before, notably by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and in A Scanner Darkly. Director Ari Folman uses it to good effect to make the film more expressionistic — making the visual tone of a scene accentuate the emotional tone. Folman occasionally reminds us that the visual style is also about the layer between reality and comprehension. One time he even plays a trick on us to demonstrate how it works. For me, the trick worked through my intellect, rather than directly on my gut as I think Folman intended, but at least it worked.
Still, the movie suffers from not being an entertainment. There are a lot of talking heads in the film, and even though they are animated, they don’t add much visual interest. Sometimes they don’t even seem to push the film forward. A few go-nowhere interviews might have been necessary to demonstrate our protagonist’s frustration at his own inaccessible past, but they slow the pace down and invite fidgeting and mind-wandering.
If you were a news hound in the early 1980s and can call to mind bombings and massacres in Beirut, you may have an easier time getting into the personal stories that made up the big events of the day. If you’re too young or if you’re not up on your Middle Eastern history, the setting may be a bit overwhelming. The historical facts aren’t essential for viewing the movie, but as in the rest of life, you might feel less adrift if you at least know the basic facts.
That is, unless your own memory has failed you.