‘Waltz with Bashir’ attractive, yet hollow

Ben Raymond

It’s a testament to the unorthodoxy of the 2008 cinema canon that one of the year’s most critically-acclaimed efforts winds up an animated half-documentary, half-memoir from a relatively inexperienced Israeli filmmaker.

“Waltz with Bashir” chronicles writer/director Ari Folman’s experiences as an Israeli soldier in the first Lebanon War of the early 1980s.

Folman journeys hundreds of miles to call on fellow fighters, hoping to piece together long-lost painful memories of the war.

One man tells of his unlikely escape to the sea under fire from Lebanese infantry. Another recounts witnessing the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children by his own comrades.

Yet another confesses a recurrent nightmare where he is chased by the 26 dogs he was ordered to execute in the stead of the enemy soldiers, he could not bring himself to kill.

The film’s animation is possibly its best feature. Wildly colorful, yet somehow dire, it glows with a planed, luminescent foreboding.

The picture’s multifarious, genre-bending quality is at first intriguing. But as the picture progresses, we see that Folman’s attempt to straddle several seemingly incompatible modes of filmmaking proves an exercise in futility.

As compelling as his story is, its fashion of narrative ultimately fails it, arresting whatever sympathy or genuine catharsis we might otherwise have felt.

Folman’s highly compartmentalized way of storytelling, which rebounds from fictionalized dialogue to ferocious flashback, ultimately proves schizophrenic.

Too little time is spent on any one patch of the story before the film is distracted away and sallies forth vacantly.

“Waltz with Bashir” is well-crafted as an animated film, but not in the slightest as the entrancing docu-drama it sets out to be.

In trying to do anything and everything, Folman proves to be well out of his depth – and almost vainly so.

Think about it: We have a supposedly harrowing tale of wartime sin and regret … animated and set to cacophonous Hebrew post-punk. How gripping can it possibly be? Are we to be excited or decimated? Banging our heads in rapture, or falling silently into tears?

“Waltz with Bashir” is Israel’s official entry into the Academy’s foreign language film category, and was nominated for the award a fortnight ago.

Oscar-watchers, including yours truly, believe it’s a lock to pick up the win.

Surely the film is not wholly undeserving, but the overwhelming support for it has come at the cost of the year’s other fine foreign language pictures.

As history demonstrates, this is not a newfound bane for the Oscars.

Of the Academy’s 5,829 members, less than a dozen siphon through the 60 to 70 entries to be considered for best foreign language film each year.

These few select nine and only nine films to be considered for nomination.

If this isn’t silly enough, most voters never see all nine of these films and decide based on hearsay and raging groupthink. They rarely get it right, and when it happens, it seems to be mere happenstance.

Our current decade is rife with discarded greats of international cinema. I’ll wager you’ve never heard of (never mind seen) South Korea’s “Oldboy” (2003), France’s “L’Enfant” (2005) or Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007).

Even widely adored pictures like Mexico’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) are not immune to the Academy’s apathy.

In 2001, France’s “Amélie,” one of the finest films ever crafted, was denied the win. And in 2003, Brazil’s “City of God,” undeniably one of the ten best this decade, missed even a nomination.

In 2008, count among the victims Italy’s “Gomorrah,” France’s “I’ve Loved You So Long” and Jordan’s “Captain Abu Raed.”

The year’s best foreign language film, “Let the Right One In” is also without an Oscar nod, and it will likely never see the light of day outside its native Sweden.

The foreign language category of the Oscars is in many ways the only chance for great international cinema to be discovered by world audiences. Pity it seems to never turn out that way.