Film releases: May 14

Image of Nigel Andrews

It was the toast of Venice after every other contender became toast. Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, () Israeli winner of last year’s Golden Lion, is two hours inside a military tank, a grimy, sweat-soaked, oil-streaked, panic-besieged coffin on caterpillar treads, grinding and anguishing through the heart of battle. Two framing shots apart, the entire movie is set inside the tank or is seen – in murky, juddery, sometimes night-visioned images – through its gun sights.

Brilliantly crafted, this part-autobiographical film is set during the 1982 Lebanon war, in which Maoz was a tank gunner, and is itself an act of war. It challenges and combats the cinematic tradition that presents war as entertainment, or even as redemptive drama. Despite the title, it isn’t about the Lebanon conflict so much as about all battle and what it does to the insides of men’s heads. The tank itself, a cramped shell where delirium is incubated, is an expressionist vision of a soldier’s brain.

The oil-and-water-puddled floor, the grimy faces, the imagined stink of bodies, the darkness, the wrench and grind of the turning gun turret (the film’s only “music”): claustrophobia never had such an outing before. There is wit too, lethal and economical. A scared Syrian prisoner is dumped in the tank for a brief spell while his Phalangist captor menaces him in Arabic with a litany of threatened torture. The captor then turns to the Israelis and says in their language: “Treat him well, he’s a prisoner of war.”

In the last scenes even the irony runs out. The tank crew is trapped in a ruined, enemy-prowled town, their only hope to choke the tank’s dying engine into final action and thunder down the nearest maze of alleys into escape or disaster. By then we are no longer looking at the characters from outside, we feel we have become them. We dwell, like battle victims ourselves, in the annihilated space between witness and spectacle.

It is an unrelenting week for cinephiles. After a day in the field hospital after Lebanon, you should sally forth to see Vincere. () Forty-five years ago Marco Bellocchio made an epoch-defining film called Fists in the Pocket. Little since from this Italian director has matched that masterly cry of generational dissent. But this historical epic comes close. In black, white and a chiaroscuro of rationed, subtly voluptuous colours, Bellocchio tells the tale of the young Benito Mussolini’s cast-off lover Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) – who claimed to have wedded him, though no marriage document was ever found – and the son she bore him, both to die in the years of ostracism they suffered after Mussolini became Il Duce.

Benito the son ended his days in a psychiatric asylum like that in which his mother wasted away. Her last years were spent penning letters to her ex-lover, who had moved on from the socialist firebrand of their first meeting to another life, another wife, another level of power and fame.

The film’s stylistic explosiveness extends from its powerful music (Carlo Crivelli) to the graphics hurled out from the screen with the panache of a Mussolini-era newsreel. Some scenes are actually set in movie theatres, those generating houses of Fascist propaganda, including a dazzlingly staged battle between political factions, as stroboscopic as the flickering screen images behind them.

While Mussolini as a main character (played young by Filippo Timi, who returns to play Benito the son) retires from the story, to be replaced by his “real” image intermittently invoked in newsreels, Giovanna Mezzogiorno takes Ida into the realms of human tragedy, leaving behind one indelible image of her character, hugging the high bars of an asylum window as she throws her messages out into a snowy midnight.

Of the week’s two documentaries, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands () is 43 minutes of awesome landscape photography. From a helicopter, director Peter Mettler, commissioned by Greenpeace, maps the hell created by oil-collecting in a patch of Canada the size of England. This is the world’s second-largest oil reserve. Peeled-back forests; outflow lakes black with bitumen; valleys eczema’d by excavation; it is at once scary, nightmarish and oddly beautiful. And silent until a late voice-over appends – even here obliquely – the message.

American: The Bill Hicks Story () celebrates the cancer-curtailed career of a renegade US stand-up comic. Scenes of cut-out animation are the novel visual approach – South Park gone non-fiction – while the vocal panache is supplied by Hicks, blithely shooting down anything that sports or supports the Stars and Stripes and dares to brag about it.

Eyes Wide Open () , the week’s second Israeli feature, is a conflicted gay romance set in orthodox Jewish Jerusalem. Married butcher falls for new assistant; their flesh is willing and their spirit of resistance weak; soon the community comes together in outrage and doom walks the land. Worthy in theme, honourable in intent, oddly bloodless in execution.

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