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'Beaufort': Oscar's New Beau?

February 21, 2008 By:
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Staking out a post in "Beaufort"

 Cedar's of Lebanon? Cedars of Hollywood!

Indeed, that's where Joseph Cedar will be this weekend, as his Lebanon-based "Beaufort" awaits its date with Oscar in the best foreign film category on Sunday night, in ceremonies to be broadcast on ABC.

A Kodak Theater moment?

"Beaufort," based on the bombed bastion of the Lebanon war, in which Israel's 18-year chai of an incursion was blessed with good intentions, and cursed by the world and many of its own people, has attracted acclaim and awards wherever it set down roots over the past year.

But nothing would please the New York-born, Israeli-raised Cedar more than watching Oscar make aliyah this Sunday.

The Israeli defense of the Lebanon bulwark was indefensible to some as the nation prepared to jettison its Jewish presence in southern Lebanon in 2000. What Cedar has seized on in this excellent film -- due to have its Philadelphia premiere next month as part of the ambitious Israel Film Festival here -- is the armed impact of loneliness, as soldiers soldier on, biding time and bombings, moved to defend an unmoveable mountain as the enemy bayonets their youth.

Following orders as the order of the daze, the soldiers question their purpose and the position they've been placed in, but not the sovereignty of their nation's decisions.

"We want our soldiers to be Sparta, but none of us wants to live in Sparta," Cedar has said.

It is a spartan comment with a saturated and ballooning presence over "Beaufort." Ironically, it was a self-waged war that served as the ammunition that armed Cedar with the idea for the script.

Having previously served a stint in Lebanon, the former paratrooper parachuted out of action, as Cedar chose to serve time rather than be re-inducted into the army for another round in 2001, when the government came calling.

And clang went the door on his jail cell, as he chose prison rather than participation in the military parade that floated by. It was during those two weeks of incarceration that the incandescent script of "Beaufort" was born as a desert storm of an idea evolved into a project that went on to win director Cedar the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

With its taut script, and taught lessons of anxiety and allegiance swirling in a sweltering cesspool of ceaseless fighting and nightmare-inducing indoctrination, "Beaufort" -- built along what is now the Lebanon border as a fortress in the 12th century -- was Cedar's sand castle in the sky.

For the much-honored filmmaker who studied cinema at New York University, it is all a filmic study in futility. Or, as he explains in the film's notes: "The withdrawal from Lebanon, in my mind, was the most optimistic event in Israel's recent history."

Recently, as the director and I talked, he opted to elaborate on what seemed an overstatement of perspective. "It wasn't actually the withdrawal that was the most optimistic, but what led up to it," he adds of the "grass-roots movement over a period of years" that seeded the decision.

In a way it was the mother of all wars: The Four Mothers Movement -- founded by Rachel Ben David, Miri Sela, Ronit Nachmias and Zohara Entebi, whose children had served in Lebanon -- moved Israel off the dime in getting out of the war, so acknowledged in 2000 by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Breaking the will to wage war seems antithetical to the Israeli image of intense warrior, rifle at the ready. But mothers, indeed, did know best.

"For the first time," recalls Cedar, "we were listening to mothers and civilians, what they had to say rather than all the generals and military people."

Atten-hut must be paid, they said, and it was, in a way shelling the sheer power of the past into submission.

"There is an idea that something is inevitable in our area and that we just get addicted to it," says Cedar of the sense that war has a hellish hold on his nation's soul. "By 2000, the public couldn't take the casualties anymore."

'Die as a Lion'
Is "Beaufort," then, the anti-Masada, the mountain of mass death whose history harkens to a time when suicide seduced Israeli soldiers to kill themselves rather than be remanded in chains to their Roman enemies?

"I only recently got to thinking of that," says the Jerusalem Jewish artist. "Masada was a role model for Israelis for so many years, with its idea of better to die as a lion than live as a dog."

It is a message that dogged the nation for too long, he avows: "It is a terrible message; there had to be an alternative."

Indeed, a group of rabbis who retreated from Masada and survived proved that you don't have to have seen the mountaintop to gain a clear perspective of survival. "Those rabbis were able to sustain a culture."

And, yes, adds Cedar, surrender "might be the life of a dog, but those dogs had puppies," weaned on the wisdom of those who opted for life rather than death.

It seems an unorthodox stance given the Masada myth, but then this filmmaker, raised Orthodox, has defeated retreat in a business where fundraising is a war of wages itself. "Beaufort," Cedar's third film, was budgeted at an Israeli mind-boggling $2.5 million.

While that may be tip money by Hollywood standards, it's a tip that Israel takes its movie-making more seriously these days in an industry where, just 10 years ago, filmmakers had to move mountains to get things done.

But then, so did Cedar, whose crew trucked in 1,000 tons of cement to reconstruct the Beaufort castle near Kalat Namrud, also a Crusader castle, set in Israel, not far from the Lebanon site of the film's title "character."

Cedar's sense of character changed over the years -- with his own id undergoing a change of identity. Making this film, he concedes, "changed my relationship with the army."

"I started the film as an obedient soldier, and ended it" as a combatant questioning military machinations.

Trading infantry for incarceration in 2001 was an out-of-body, out-of-uniform experience for the outsider. No clanging a cup against bar cells; his kup was elsewhere. "Jail was a very good experience," he relates. "I'd recommend it to anyone."

Certainly, serving a sentence helped him construct the sentences that would net him the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for best screenplay. (The film is adapted from a book by Ron Leshem, which itself was adapted from an article Leshem penned for Yediot Achronot.)

There is strength in numbers, but not in the numbness of blind acceptance. "Being an outsider takes courage," says Cedar.

Not that the actors were outside the realm of criticism. When it was revealed that the movie's stars themselves had not served in the military, a moral bomb went off as some questioned their patriotic prowess. "Israel may be the only place where actors are expected to have actual combat experience when playing soldiers in a movie," Cedar ceded to the Los Angeles Times.

But nothing is more startling than the blowup that occurs on screen, as Beaufort is wired and whisked off into oblivion with bombs bursting in air.

Parting shot? "That last shot is one of optimism," notes Cedar of the Israeli commanding officer "shown back on the Israeli side, taking off layers of protection, for the first time feeling safe. He is looking into the future, and what he sees is an alternative meaning to his manhood."

No one questions Cedar's manhood, although there were some opinions about his having the right stuff for the military. Originally committed to becoming an army officer, his ambitions were derailed by testing that, said the military doctor, showed he was "detached from reality," a decision dispatching his ambitions.

"I don't accept that designation," he says. "I feel he [the psychologist] really didn't get me."

But it got Cedar on the path he was subsequently to pursue, which includes his next project: A film about German director Veit Harlan, Joseph Goebbels' go-to grunt for grisly propaganda, such as the infamous "Jud Suss."

It proved material much better suited than the fabric of an army officer's uniform.

"It turned out that they were right," says the four-star director of the military two-star setback. "I wasn't officer material."

But Oscar material? He certainly is, and so is his film. Not that "Beaufort" was nominated without a war of words: "The Band's Visit," originally chosen as Israel's official Academy contender, was disqualified when Oscar officials realized that more than 50 percent of its script was in English, a rules breach.

Come Sunday night, will it be "Beaufort" that pushes the envelope and gets a seal of approval? If so, will the tuxedoed Cedar, suited for success, be ready for it?

Ah, laughs the man who has blown up a mountain, about being in the mainstream. "I'll cross that bridge on Sunday."

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