New protest films illuminate the past

Dark moments in South African and Israeli history are revisited in new releases

Hollywood usually grows a tad more serious as the cool-weather season sets in, and this year is no exception, as some coming releases indicate. But if you're looking for truly thoughtful fare, imports from overseas still deserve a lion's share of attention. While they won't play on as many screens or bombard us with such aggressive ad campaigns, the best of them serve as healthy reminders of film's ability to explore and illuminate the urgent issues of our age.

This week's most impressive import comes from Israel, where current events are at least as dramatic and troubling as anything the screen has to offer. "Kippur," directed by Amos Gitai, plunges directly into a subject at the heart of that nation's history: war, and the impact of combat on the individuals who have to confront its tribulations face to face.

As its title suggests, Kippur deals with the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Gitai himself fought while still in his early 20s. The movie focuses on a small military group formed almost by accident in the early days of the conflict. Unable to reach their proper unit because of congested roads, two soldiers join an army physician assigned to rescue wounded troops from combat areas.

Their helicopter team brings them to one Golan Heights battlefield after another, subjecting them to a dizzying variety of challenges. While this whirlwind of activity is depicted in painstaking and often frightening detail, the film's main interest lies less in the physical violence of combat than in the psychological violence inflicted on the exhausted people forced to slog through this endless series of traumas and ordeals. Rarely has a movie captured the mental costs of warfare with such keen insight and relentless energy.

"Kippur" gains much of its credibility from Gitai's first-hand experiences with combat, and also from his insistence on filming the picture in the Golan Heights, where the action takes place.

Yet this is ultimately not a war movie at all, in the traditional sense of a guts-and-glory epic highlighting the heroism of valiant fighting men. Nor is it an antiwar movie, preaching a lesson against organized bloodshed and hatred. In the end it's a movie against war movies, scuttling their second-hand celebrations of battlefield bravery so as to portray combat's real nature: hard, tedious work performed by drained, tired soldiers whose overloaded minds are numbed almost to the vanishing point by trauma and fatigue.

Beneath its mercilessly realistic surface, "Kippur" has the surreal resonance of the eeriest nightmare you can imagine. It can't be real, and yet it is. And therein lies its deepest lesson.

Boesman & Lena, a French-South African coproduction, takes place in the bad old days of South Africa's apartheid system. Its two main characters are a mixed-race man and woman wandering the roads outside Capetown in search of a place to hunker down after being driven from their meager home by white authorities.

Boesman is angry, bitter, and ready for violence at the slightest provocation, while Lena is more thoughtful, philosophical, and willing to take comfort from her memories of better times. Their emotionally complex relationship meets a new challenge when a down-and-out black tribesman strays across their path, desperate for a bit of food and a hint of human kindness.

He's with them for a short time, but it's long enough to catalyze a new phase in their lives as they struggle for meaningful interaction in a social situation based on oppressions that dehumanize everyone they touch.

Danny Glover and Angela Bassett play the title characters with great energy, and the late director John Berry has invested the movie as a whole with the moral conscience that underpinned his entire career. Athol Fugard's dialogue seems written for the stage rather than the screen, however - it has a larger-than-life quality that comes across too strongly when magnified in the movie theater - and the stars are so eager to be interesting that they don't always manage to be convincing as well. "Boesman & Lena" is a constructive film and in some ways an important one. But its impact doesn't live up to its ambitions.

Not rated. Both movies contain physical and emotional violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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