Among the most heartening recent developments in movies is the upsurge in deeply personal animated films that break new aesthetic ground. I'm thinking particularly of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly," Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," and now, and perhaps best of all, "Waltz With Bashir," by the Israeli director, screenwriter, and composer Ari Folman. (It is Israel's entry for the best foreign film Oscar and recently won best picture of the year from the National Society of Film Critics.)
Like "Persepolis," which was about Satrapi's Iranian odyssey, Folman's movie – Israel's first animated feature – is intensely autobiographical. He brings his deepest crazymaking anxieties right up to the surface. Folman was a 17-year-old Israeli soldier during the 1982 invasion of Beirut and the subsequent massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Twenty-five years later, he still cannot come to terms with his complicity in the bloodshed. He is in such denial that he cannot even clearly recall his participation. "Waltz With Bashir" is his quest to find out what happened. It follows Folman through a series of interviews with fellow soldiers who also served.
He utilized videotaped discussions as visual guides for the animation, a combination of Flash, hand-drawn and computer-enhanced 3-D modeling. The pastiche of styles points up Folman's disjointed remembrances. He documents the nightmares of his fellow soldiers, like the one from his friend Boaz that opens the film: Twenty-six ravenous dogs racing through the streets of Beirut. Boaz remembers the exact number because, while on military maneuvers, he had to shoot the dogs one by one in order to silence them. Another friend recalls the dream of being clasped by a giant nude woman floating on her back as they are carried off to sea. Images like these have a scary, hallucinatory power that no description can convey.
In some ways, "Waltz With Bashir" reminded me – of all things – of "The Manchurian Candidate," which also centered on a soldier with bad dreams trying to retrieve his memories of a massacre by reconnecting with his old platoon. But Folman's movie is one of a kind. Visually arresting – the sulfurous nightscapes are particularly resonant – it is also a philosophical meditation on the nature of guilt and survival. Because of the current situation in Gaza between the Israelis and Hamas, it may even have special relevance beyond what Folman intended.
He takes no doctrinaire political position regarding Israel's presence in Lebanon at the time of the massacres (which may rankle zealots on both sides of the political spectrum). And yet, that situation, in which Israeli soldiers observed but did not intervene in the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia, informs everything in this movie. It compounds Folman's trauma. There is nothing self-serving in any of this, no special pleading. Folman's emotional quest is existential; he goes wherever his blocked and burgeoning memories take him.
"Waltz With Bashir" is a supremely courageous act, not only as a piece of filmmaking, but much more so as a moral testament. And because Folman's odyssey is so all-encompassing, we can connect up to it psychologically in ways that transcend the historical particulars of Lebanon in 1982. It's a movie about the wages of suffering, on all sides, in battle. When, at the very end, Folman dispenses with animation and shows newsreel footage of the massacre's aftermath, the full obscenity of war screams out at us. Grade: A (Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity, and a scene of graphic sexual content.)