Waltz with Bashir (review)
Dances with Wolves
Animation! It’s not just for kiddie movies anymore.
Actually, that’s been true at least since Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 X-rated Fritz the Cat, but the Disney juggernaut — and the Mouse’s inevitable imitators — have cemented the idea that if it’s a cartoon, it must be for the kids. Maybe that notion will finally be put aside after Waltz with Bashir, the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category. Not only is it most definitely not for the young’uns, it also takes animation into the realm of cinematic art in a way that even the most ardent detractor of singing princesses surely must acknowledge.
More illustrated than animated, more Maus than Mouse, Bashir uses a flat palette of shadows and sickly colors to tell an impressionistic, surreal, often hallucinatory tale of one man’s attempt to recapture memories that he’s suppressed… memories he may be better off not remembering. Ari Folman is an Israeli filmmaker who hears the story, from an old friend, of how his subconscious keeps coughing up the same horrific dream, night after night, of the friend being chased by a pack of vicious dogs. It’s this startling sequence that opens the film, of demon hounds crashing through streetside cafes with the brutal starkness of a graphic novel come to life, and none of the fluid prettyness of a Disney toon, setting the tone of what’s to come.
For Ari discovers that although he agrees with his friend that his recurring nightmare is likely the spawn of their joint time together in the Israeli army during the first war with Lebanon in the early 1980s, Ari himself can remember nothing of his army service. It’s a complete blank. But he doesn’t panic — he decides to investigate, to talk to other friends and acquaintances from that time to unravel what he can about his experience in the war. As he does so, memories begin to resurface, which we experience as harsh animated phantasms. The roiling, conflicting emotions of the young Ari — and his fellow soldiers — during the war manifest themselves as brash images of aggressive masculininty that turn soft and pining, as in one astonishing moment that is all longing for the comfort of women (of a lover? a mother? both, and neither, perhaps: it’s more inchoate yearning than articulated desire).
Bashir is by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman… and this is his true story of his search for his lost past. As an animated documentary (last year’s Persepolis was based on fact too, but was more autobiography than documentary), the film breaks new ground, too, in creating a sensory experience of something many of us will never undergo firsthand — battlefield terror; the panic of being under fire; the disconnect soldiers use to separate war from not-war and spare their sanity — in a way that no live-action re-creation could achieve. It’s hard to pick which sequence is most staggering or most shocking or most disquieting: Is it the psychologically numbed soldiers walking out of the sea as if out of womb of protection and into danger? Is it Ari’s initial impressions of the Beirut airport when his battalion arrives there, hazed over with the pleasant implications of tourism and travel airports usually come with… and then the contrast with how things really stand? Is it the moment when we discover what the title of the film means, which becomes something like a classical ballet performed with RPGs?
As Ari talks with his old friends — most supply their own voices; a few who wished to remain anonymous are performed by actors based on Folman’s actual interviews with them — the cumulative effect of the bleak imagery of memories and Ari’s calm but alarmed befuddlement with his predicament is unsettling. Waltz with Bashir becomes a profoundly antiwar statement not just for the horrors of the actual battlefield — and as Ari’s memories return, we see exactly how awful those horrors can be — but also for the long-term impact on the men who fight. Rarely has the hollow war leaves in those who carry it out been so vividly portrayed.