I've seen "Waltz with Bashir" twice now. The first time I saw it two months ago, I kept dozing off. However, "Waltz" was the final movie I saw in a bumper-to-bumper week of screenings, catching one movie after another before I finally filled out my top-10 list for last year. By the time I caught it, I was very sleepy and very irritable. When I mentioned my lack of consciousness to several film-critic colleagues, they confessed that they kept slipping into a quiet slumber while watching the movie as well. This led us to believe that "Waltz" could, in fact, be cinematic Ambien.
But since I couldn't write a review that consisted of me hitting the "Z" button over and over, I decided to give the movie another chance. So, after a night of refreshing sleep, I woke up alert and fully rested, ready to check out "Waltz" one mo 'gin. And while I'm glad to report I didn't go to sleep again, I also have to admit it kept losing me a few times.
"Waltz" is a film you may get the gist of way before it figures itself out in the end. Written and directed by Ari Folman, a veteran of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, "Waltz" attempts to cinematically explain the atrocities of that time and how other men who fought in that war are haunted by it this very day. With its use of Flash cutouts and classic animation to visually illustrate this, the movie almost feels like a bloody, bullet-ridden version of Richard Linklater's trippy "Waking Life." ("Waking Life in Hell," anyone?)
It all starts with a friend and fellow war vet telling Folman in a bar of a recurring nightmare he has: 26 wild, ravenous dogs rushing down the street, all gunning for him. We soon learn that, during the war, Folman's friend was assigned to wipe out the barking dogs who would notify the enemy of his platoon's sneak-attack arrival. This leads Folman to recall a memory he had during the war, of he and other soldiers coming out from the sea naked, putting on their clothes and walking smack dab in the middle of the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps, where many Palestinians were murdered.
With this lone memory endlessly playing inside his head, Folman begins his journey of rediscovery, tracking down fellow servicemen to see if they also remember this moment.
"Waltz" appears to be a hybrid documentary whose artificiality seems to be its most devious asset. It appears that Folman is implying that, for him and those who served with him, life during wartime was so unbelievable, so extreme, it felt like a surreal cartoon. The kind of place where men randomly shot their machine guns in the air, as though they were dancing with a gal. (Hence the title.)
At times, "Waltz" looks too dreamlike for its own good. (This could explain why I kept going beddy-bye during the first viewing.) As several of Folman's buddies share their own haunting war stories, some of them turn out to be more fantastic than disturbing. One guy recalls dreaming about a giant, naked woman coming from the water and whisking him away before a boat he's on gets bombed.
By the time Folman finally realizes why no one remembers his war story, you may have already figured it out for yourself. Although "Waltz" shines an illuminating light on a tragic, traumatic conflict, it reminds us what many of us already know: War, like many trauma-inducing experiences, is something you try your hardest to forget, even when your subconscious won't let you. Talk to any war veteran and they'll say that there are moments in the battlefield that should be best left there. Even though Folman admirably reminds us that it's worth remembering things you'd rather forget, "Waltz with Bashir" is a film that may provoke some and numb others.
Especially if you haven't had your full eight hours.