TEL AVIV, Israel - In the opening minutes of Joseph Cedar's new film "Beaufort," three Israeli soldiers hunker down behind concrete blast walls and talk about what brought them to an isolated mountaintop fortress in Lebanon."If you are here, you are here by mistake," one doomed soldier says to a new arrival sent to defuse a roadside bomb. "I wanted to be here. That was the mistake."
That message, which raises fundamental questions about Israel's use of military power, has struck a chord with moviegoers here at a time when the country is grappling with a pervasive sense of malaise in the wake of last summer's 34-day war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.
Filmed before last summer's war, "Beaufort" is set during Israel's 18-year occupation of Lebanon, which ended seven years ago. But its story of a shell-shocked Israeli unit charged with defending and dismantling a military outpost established at a 12th-century Crusader castle resonates today as confidence in the Israeli government remains low over what Israelis believe was a disappointing end to last summer's war.
Next month, a special government committee looking into Israel's handling of the war, which failed to bring about the release of the two soldiers whose kidnapping on July 12 triggered the conflict, is expected to deliver a caustic critique of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's year-old coalition government.
"Seeing it through the prism of last summer's war, our nerve endings are more sensitive to the question of: Was this military operation necessary? Did people die in vain?" said Stuart Schoffman, a columnist at The Jerusalem Report magazine.
"Beaufort" has set records for an Israeli film by attracting more than 135,000 viewers in its first two-and-a-half weeks. One critic dubbed it "Israel's first great war movie." Last month, Cedar became the first Israeli to be named best director at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Based on true events, the film traces the grim, gray months of a small Israeli unit faced with an unenviable mission as their military prepares to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Commandos scamper across open ground amid relentless Hezbollah mortar attacks. Instead of striking back, the unit is largely relegated to a maze of concrete tunnels and observation posts that are easy targets for Hezbollah's increasingly deadly rockets. One by one, the soldiers are cut down by Hezbollah attacks that bring gasps from the audience. Throughout the film, Hezbollah remains an invisible foe.
As his men are killed, the unit's 22-year-old commander, "Liraz," wrestles with his country's decision to withdraw, his flaws as a leader and his responsibility in ultimately blowing up a symbolic command post that was one of the first strategic points captured when Israel invaded in 1982.
For Cedar, who spent several weeks at Beaufort as a young soldier, the story is the antithesis of Masada, the legendary fortress near the Dead Sea where Jewish revolutionaries took their own lives rather than surrender to advancing Romans.
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"A society that feels confident about their values can allow themselves to be weak, to surrender once in a while," said Cedar, 38. "I thought that the withdrawal from Lebanon signaled that Israel is a state where they are confident enough not to hold onto certain iconic mountains because they know that we're strong enough, our value system is just enough and we don't need our flag to show it."
The movie has been seen by top Israeli generals, leading politicians and young soldiers. Not everyone is embracing Cedar's message.
Effie Eitam, a conservative Israeli lawmaker and brigadier general who led an officer's school battalion during the first Lebanon war, criticized "Beaufort" for suggesting that the withdrawal was a courageous step.
"Retreating from military and national positions, lowering the flag and converging behind fences is a recipe for failure and disaster," Eitam wrote on his blog. "That is not the way to build a nation, national pride or deterrence power."
Cedar dislikes that his film has been linked to last summer's war. He said the tie made his film "cheap" when it should be able to stand the test of time.
Still, Cedar said he hopes his exploration of the final months of the Israeli outpost and its fantastic demolition will cause Israelis and their American supporters to think about how Israel uses its military prowess in the region.
"I think that American Jews like to think of their Israeli cousins as brave soldiers and I kind of resent that that's what's expected of me," Cedar said.
The lesson in Beaufort's destruction, he said, is one of understanding what's truly important.
"We had to keep the mountain, to keep the myth of how important it was, but it was impossible, and slowly everyone there understood that it was about some kind of national pride that had no substance," he said. "The only thing of substance is being able to leave the mountain ... knowing that no one will ever die there again, and coming home."
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.