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Originally published January 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 29, 2009 at 4:12 PM

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Movie review

"Waltz with Bashir" uses animation to distill memories of war

"Waltz With Bashir," Ari Folman's unique animated documentary, deals with true and false memories and the Israeli Army's participation in the Lebanon war of 1982.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Waltz With Bashir," an animated documentary written and directed by Ari Folman. 85 minutes. Rated R for cartoon nudity and graphic sex scene. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Metro.

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You might think that "Apocalypse Now" offered the last word on helicopter warfare, thundering music and the daredevil surfing of bullet-strafed beaches.

But the copters and the soldier-surfers are back in Ari Folman's grimly compelling "Waltz With Bashir," a unique, Oscar-nominated "animated documentary" that uses graphic-novel-style animation to deal with the Israeli army's participation in the Lebanon war of 1982.

One major difference between the two films is the abstract quality that animation lends these scenes. The beach episodes have a starkly poetic urgency. The silhouetted blades of a helicopter look like hands — promising a rescue — in this context.

The opening sequence is one soldier's recurring nightmare. More than two dozen vicious dogs (exactly 26, he insists) roam the streets, snarling and looking for prey. Liquidation is mentioned as a possible solution. But who or what is being liquidated?

Folman's script is based on a harrowing true story of genocide and group amnesia. Like the replicants in "Blade Runner" and the Korean War veterans of "The Manchurian Candidate," the Israeli soldiers in "Waltz With Bashir" are haunted by false but revealing memories.

One veteran recalls being on a "Love Boat" cruise — or was that just an old commando boat, camouflaged to mislead? A giant, seductive female lures one soldier into the sea. A soldier "waltzes" with an image of the assassinated and charismatic Lebanese leader Bashir Gemayel. Faced with darkness and little certainty, soldiers succumb to the philosophy of "pray and shoot."

"I just can't remember (the whole thing)," one soldier says to another. "But somehow you're in it." Another veteran believes that memory "fills the hours with things that never happened." To both victims and observers, the experience was sometimes like watching an especially hypnotic movie.

A gun morphs into a guitar. A musical number, "I Bombed Beirut Every Day," seems to justify collateral damage. The apocalyptic soundtrack accompanies images of slaughtered Arabian horses, an abandoned airport with gutted planes, tanks crushing cars in too-narrow streets, corpses piled chest-high.

Folman drew on his own unreliable memories and those of other witnesses to a massacre of 3,000 Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Christians who were avenging Bashir's murder. Although the Christians were Israeli allies and Israeli solders knew about the episode, it was not, in the words of one soldier, "stored in my nervous system."

But other horrors were. Best-known in the United States for writing episodes of HBO's excellent "In Treatment" series, Folman uses visual metaphors to suggest amnesia-generating trauma. Collective guilt is the true subject, and animators Tal Gadon and Gali Edelbaum provide the hallucinatory images to underline it

Everything is seen as if through a distorting hall-of-mirrors camera, which occasionally finds a moment of beauty in the mayhem — an orchard shootout is curiously lovely — but ugly and undeniable reality takes over in the devastating final moments.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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