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cast: Oshri Cohen, Itai Szor, Itay Tiran, Eli Eltonyo, and Itay Turgeman

writer and director: Joseph Cedar

125 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Trinity blu-ray Region B retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Beaufort is that rarity among war films - one with the subject matter of retreat and a (at least implied) defeat of sorts. As such, it falls in with much earlier and illustrious company as John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) - a generation and continent away, perhaps, but which also showed the camaraderie that can develop at the anti-climactic close of a military campaign. Unlike Ford's work, with its unspoken certainty of eventual victory, director Joseph Cedar's Beaufort is a portrait of military inertia and inevitable pointlessness, at least as experienced by its small band of combatants. Conversely, it is a million miles away from such films as Black Hawk Down where it's suggested that gung ho operations can in some way appease for operational ineptitude and loss. If it's true that most history is written by the victors, then Cedar's film and its ilk ought to be treasured as offering a truer and more convincing alternative even if, as in Beaufort's case, the results are criticised by local critics for being 'left wing' and 'defeatist'.

Co-adapted for the screen by the original book's author Ron Lesham, the film concerns a group of soldiers guarding a mountaintop in Lebanon shortly before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Beaufort Mountain is a place with particular historical significance, both as 12th century crusader castle and a more recent, hard-won Israeli military capture - but as quickly becomes apparent its value is more symbolic than strategic. Frequently shelled by the Hezbollah, perhaps guessing that the IDF is about to pull out, the outpost is isolated and its garrison depressed, its purpose unclear.

As the film starts, Beaufort's soldiers are joined by Ziv (Ohad Knoller), sent to investigate a new-style explosive device found on the road. During the opening scenes of the film there's some anticipation in subject matter of the recent Hurt Locker, but matters shortly take a different course after the first traumatic event. It turns out that the central character of Cedar's film is not the bomb expert but the introspective and honourable Commander Liraz (Oshri Cohen). A man who "can't believe someone gave him the job," and whose increasing guilt and disillusionment at his responsibilities form the core of the narrative.

It has to be said that Beaufort is rather a glum film, shot in claustrophobic interiors, often at night. This may be an accurate representation of warfare under such circumstances but Cedar, like Ford, admirably avoids sentimentality he fails to fill the space left with any real pathos and poetry, although showing empathy with his characters. Neither is there much, if any, black humour to provide contrast. When not on guard duty, or dodging incoming rockets, the soldiers are normally in their bunker-like environment - the corridors of which at times remind one of a spaceship without an alien - gloomily interacting with each other. The military installation on Mount Beaufort, largely empty and of questionable purpose, is a symbol of their whole mission, perhaps even more than the plaque which hangs there celebrating recent war dead. It stands in contrast to the remains of the original castle, visited at one point by several of the soldiers while in contemplative mood, the earlier construction had a far more distinguished point and still seems to be a source of strength.

Where Beaufort scores is through its representation of a soldier's life when trapped between duty and political inertia, even though it's implied withdrawal from political engagement can be seen both as a strength and weakness. Instead it relies upon the unspoken rage of the morally dispossessed. In one telling scene, we see Ziv watching on TV an interview with the parent of one of his fallen comrades. The commander's slow tapping with a lighter on the table, an insistent accompaniment to the points being made on the small screen (that a parent's duty is to ensure his offspring are better aware of the value of life), is like a military tattoo for a friend's funeral cortege and, through him, honour itself. Ziv the loyal soldier cannot overtly question his predicament, but the ironic beat over coverage of events inevitably offers commentary.

Writer-director Cedar's previous two films, Time Of Favour (aka: Ha-Hesador, 2000), and Campfire (aka: Madurat Hashevet, 2004), both engaged with social and political aspects of the modern Jewish state, sometimes with controversial elements. In this latest one he provides another well-wrought and thoughtful piece, worth seeking out, even if it does not pretend to offer any answers. But perhaps that is the point: answers are always hard to find, let alone agree on, in such circumstances.

The blu-ray disc contains nothing in its extras that aren't present in the original regular DVD release. The most substantial item is a 24-minute making-of documentary which gives an idea of the difficulties and process of staging the film. While mainly interesting from a technical standpoint and the unique location, it can hardly be called essential. There are also some deleted scenes, most of which flesh out further the relationship between the principals. Add to this, two versions of the film's trailer, long and short, and that's it. What's missing, of course, is any attempt by the makers to place the events of the film in a military-political context. Viewers of the film in the Middle East would have their own ideas and experience as to the background, but viewers elsewhere would benefit from some documentary information. The result is that Cedar's film, rather like Mount Beaufort itself, stands isolated.

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