Ready or not, here comes the past
by Jason Blair
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (VALS IM BASHIR): Written and directed by Ari Folman. Illustrated by David Polonsky. Music, Max Richter. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. 90 minutes.
You won’t find much dancing in Waltz with Bashir. Nor will you learn a great deal about Bashir Gemayel, the president of Lebanon who was assassinated during the 1982 war with Israel. The real Bashir belongs to history; Waltz with Bashir is about how memory suppresses history when we’re exposed to deeply traumatic events. Waltz with Bashir is an extraordinary film experience, one that, while improved by an awareness of history, is both deeply personal and universal in its attempt to reconstruct the past. A highly unusual, highly decorated film, Waltz with Bashir is an animated war documentary about the attempt to recover lost memories by a group of friends who were soldiers in the 1982 war — a war that, with bottomless irony, the Israeli government called “Operation Peace.” Writer and director Ari Folman, an Israeli soldier who invaded Beruit, is particularly interested in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Israeli soldiers allowed the slaughter of Palestinian refugees by a Lebanese militia avenging the death of Bashir.
Waltz with Bashir has so many aspects to it — aspects that work successfully, even spectacularly, together — that it’s nearly impossible to synthesize them all. At the outset, Ari is visited by Boaz, a friend from the war who’s experiencing recurring nightmares. During their meeting, Ari realizes he can’t recall the details of his war service. His one memory, which recurs throughout the film, becomes the most paralyzingly beautiful scene of 2008: Ari and two friends are bathing in the sea at night as flares rain down like fireballs over Beirut. With that image, which may or may not be authentic, as a sort of divining rod, Ari attempts to discover the hidden wells of memory within him, primarily by visiting and interviewing his old friends. Carmi, a haunted man who remembers less than Ari, seems to have died years ago. Ronny is alert but plagued by survivor’s guilt. Frenkel, their captain, is keenly aware of the war’s details, but his focus suggests a childlike fear of the unknown. As you watch Ari’s memories expand with repetition, you realize not only what you’re watching, but why Folman chose to tell his story this way. The film’s richly animated comic-book style approximates the elusiveness and fluidity of our memories, which in Waltz with Bashir run like spilled mercury and are sometimes as hard to follow.
Winner of the 2008 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Waltz with Bashir is the only animated film ever nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. It is also, oddly, one of only two Israeli animated features ever released, the other being last year’s $9.99. In a year without WALL-E, Bashir would be the best animated film of the year. In a year without Man on Wire, it would be the year’s best documentary. Instead, by combining these disparate elements, it’s an entirely new way to tell a story, making Bashir, for my money, one of the best films of this or any other year. The final scene, which I found gratuitous, doesn’t diminish what comes before it, which is essentially a journey to a place in which Folman can finally exclaim, “The memories are coming back.”
Waltz with Bashir opens Friday, Feb. 27, at the Bijou.