In a key sequence of Amos Gitai‘s searing memoir of his army experiences during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, four exhausted Israeli soldiers, thigh-deep in mud, labor to heave a stretcher bearing a wounded comrade to a rescue helicopter on the Golan Heights. The scene — lifting, schlepping, dropping, cursing, lifting — grinds along for an excruciating seven and a half minutes, a real-time fragment of the continuous chaos and routinized tedium that is war in full bloody flower. That tedium, and not the programmatic choreography of Hollywood battlefield heroics, is what Gitai wants us to feel firsthand in Kippur, and though it may wear you out, it won’t bore or alienate you for a second.
At once an anti-war movie and the very antithesis of a ”war movie“ — it plays more like a highly dramatic documentary — Kippur slogs through what Gitai plainly regards as a watershed in Israel‘s scarred military and political history in the company of a ragged unit cobbled together from soldiers scrambling (and mostly failing) to join their units after Syria launched its surprise attack on Israel. Shot in long, hand-held takes, the movie eyeballs the war from the viewpoint of this less than magnificent seven — they are heroes only as far as the situation allows — as they man the helicopters that swoop down to pick up the wounded and take them to a field hospital.
One soldier in particular — Gitai’s alter ego, Weinraub (Liron Levo) — is a brooding young artist much given to quoting Herbert Marcuse. We meet him moments before the first siren goes off, walking down a deserted Jerusalem street on the holiest day of the Jewish year, the prayers of the Orthodox ringing in his ears — then entwined naked with his girlfriend in a bath of paint. This latter spectacle offers a religiously secular moment in a city of the devout (whose culture Gitai explored in his previous film, Kadosh), an artily ritualized overture, and the only sequence that recalls the more expressionist, Frenchified filmmaking that Gitai honed during a seven-year self-imposed cultural exile in Paris. The bright colors in which the lovers wallow blend on their bodies into a murky green, the color and mood of the camouflage and mud that will dominate the rest of the movie. A wistful saxophone takes up the refrain from the love scene, swelling into a quiet lament that echoes the endless whir of the copters as they move behind Syrian lines to pick up the injured — the dead, Gitai shows us in a wrenching scene in which a distraught soldier has to be physically pried loose from his fallen comrades, must wait — then sets the tone for the troubled nighttime reflections of the soldiers.
If Weinraub is the movie‘s sensitive eyes and ears, his friend Ruso (Tomer Ruso) seems almost a caricature of Israeli alpha-manhood: Cocksure, abrasive, pragmatic to a fault, he’s the very essence of officer material — and destined to be as desperately chastened as any of his companions. Though there is anger aplenty in Kippur toward the country‘s sloganeering leaders, the movie is almost shockingly warm and tender, especially in the quiet ministrations of one soldier to another both in and out of battle. All the braggadocio, the arrogance born of Israel’s stunning victory over the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War, collapse before the vulnerability and helplessness of these men as they limp home from one last traumatic comeuppance.
If Kippur has a weak link, it‘s a certain expository stiffness in the screenplay, co-written by Gitai and French screenwriter Marie-Jose Sanselme — the result, it seems, of an anxious need to set the political and historical context for the uninitiated. It hardly matters in a movie that speaks so eloquently through its images. In the eerie, lying tranquillity of the copter’s flight, on an insanely incongruous sunny autumn day, over the burned-out tanks and ravaged Arab homes of the Golan — there‘s nothing left to say, except that Weinraub will go home a changed man, just as Gitai went home a social critic in the making.