Israeli writer/director Amos Gitai's last film, Kadosh, was a claustrophobic tale of two sisters living in an ultra-Orthodox religious community in Jerusalem. The 1999 picture moved at a snail's pace and turned an already rigid, divisive belief system into a completely alienating experience. In contrast, the director's most recent work, Kippur (which, like its predecessor, first unspooled at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival), covers three days in the life of a helicopter rescue team during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It proves an infinitely more successful and involving work.
Kippur is heavily autobiographical. Gitai served as a member of an air-force rescue unit during the war, and the incidents depicted onscreen reflect his own experiences. The film, however, does not aim for the standard "you are there" documentary feel. With few exceptions, the camera stands at a distance, recording events in remarkably steady and lengthy wide shots. The alternative -- used successfully in films such as Saving Private Ryan and the recent Tigerland (which has yet to play St. Louis) -- would have been to use a handheld camera to thrash about alongside the actors, in effect making the viewer a participant in the scene.
The director's decision not to place his audience directly in the action is a somewhat surprising one, given that Gitai is known primarily as a documentary filmmaker. But it turns out to be exactly the right choice, offering viewers a less visceral, more intellectual sense of what the characters are going through -- a slightly more objective point of view that retains a great deal of power.
The Yom Kippur War was the fourth major outbreak of hostilities between Israel and her Arab neighbors since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. It began in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 1973 -- on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar -- when Egyptian and Syrian military forces launched a two-pronged surprise attack in the Sinai Peninsula and on the Golan Heights.
The film follows two soldiers, Sgt. Weinraub (Liron Levo) and Lt. Ruso (Tomer Ruso), who can't get to the front in time to meet their unit and, instead, join a doctor and his small contingent of rescue workers whose job is to evacuate downed pilots from the battlefield and ferry them, along with other injured soldiers, to Israeli hospitals.
Gitai isn't interested in showing us the horrors of combat; rather, his focus is on the constant state of fear and anxiety that accompanies the physically and emotionally draining labor. Zigzagging through enemy fire and slogging through knee-deep mud with the burden of knowing you are responsible for someone else's life quickly produces confusion, exhaustion and a numbing sense of unreality. The seven men who make up the rescue unit develop a close bond. In fact, the most affecting scene in the film is a late-night discussion between Ruso and Klauzner, the team's doctor (Uri Ran Klauzner).
Many of the characters in the film were given the names of the actors portraying them. With the exception of Sgt. Weinraub, however, the names don't correspond to the actual men who served with Gitai, whose full name, Amos Weinraub Gitai, makes clear who his alter-ego is in the film.
Despite the vastly different storylines, Gitai uses many of the same stylistic techniques here that he employed in Kadosh and that, one suspects, he employs in most of his films. These include lengthy scenes -- some as long as three or four minutes -- that play out in a single shot; single shots that contain little or no camera movement; a reliance on wide shots (vs. closeups or medium shots), few cutaways and long stretches without any dialogue and little physical activity.
A scene of the rescuers piling out of the helicopter, darting across a field to reach a wounded soldier, hoisting the man onto a stretcher and then carrying him back to the waiting chopper is achieved in one long shot, a wide shot in which the camera never moves. Obviously the scene is being played out in real time, which gives it a kind of irreproachable authenticity. There are no cuts, no edits and no time lapses. We are seeing the action exactly as it is unfolding -- albeit at such a distance that we are able to absorb the experience intellectually without feeling in the middle of it.
And yet the viewer feels infinitely more a part of this story than in Kadosh. Even with death constantly nipping at the soldiers' heels, the camaraderie and sense of purpose that so quickly arises among Kippur's characters is certainly more inviting than the suffocating atmosphere that entombs Kadosh's two sisters.