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Israel and Iran Trump Michael Moore at Venice

11/13/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

VENICE - The two surprise winners at the Venice Film Festival represent the yin and yang of the modern Middle East. Conquering both Michael Moore and George Clooney, "Lebanon," winner of the Golden Lion is a gory anti-war punch in the face, an autobiographical account of the writer-director Samuel Maoz's time spent as a self-described "killing machine" during Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Maoz has been quoted as saying, "I didn't get out of that tank until I made this movie," and it's easy to see why. Viewers may find it hard to shake off the imagery of this movie as well.

The Iranian film "Women Without Men," adapted from the novel by Shahrnush Pahrshipur, took second place, and it's the more watchable of the two movies. The film places the maltreatment of women at the center of the Iranian nation's problems, in contrast to the more familiar Middle Eastern self-analysis, which usually lays blame on Western Imperialists, and/or Israel. Pahrshipur has been jailed twice for the incomprehensible offense of mentioning virginity in her book, and the book is banned in Iran.

"Lebanon" is a "man's" film, in every sense of the word. Unlike most recent American war movies -- "The Hurt Locker" comes to mind -- Maoz's tank movie doesn't just offer one or two scenes of gore and then move on with the plot. "Lebanon" has not much of a "plot" per se, it's a chaotic descent into hell, a series of images from inside a tank during one long day and night in Lebanon.

The gunner is the new guy, Yigal, and he's never aimed at any living thing before, just targets. The action takes place entirely inside or from the point of view of the claustrophobic tank, an Israeli Das Boot. It's dark and the machine's metal walls drip with grease as three young men inside await orders. Only through the gunner's target scope do we and the crew see the outside world, at first in night-vision green. Inside, there's a stencil on the wall. "Man is steel. The Tank is only Iron."

You can smell the stink of the men from the first minutes of the film. It's hot in there, and an oily liquid pools always at their feet, into which they sometimes catch their own reflections among cigarette butts. By the end of the movie, the oil on the inner walls starts to tint red and the men are black with oily filth, like the cogs in a death machine that they are.

Yigal freezes up on his first kill order, and two guys in a Mercedes -- the "terrorists" -- manage to shoot and kill an infantry man outside the tank. The gunner's lesson learned the hard way, he pulls the trigger on the next truck that comes into the banana grove. When the smoke settles, boxes of live chickens are cracking open in the dirt, and the driver, an old Arab farmer now missing both legs and an arm, lies on the ground screaming "Salam!" (Peace). A commander's rifle shot puts him out of his misery.

The action moves into a town recently wiped out by the Israeli Air Force. Their ultimate goal is breakfast at "Hotel San Tropez" -- one of those oxymoronic, western-named, one-star Arab hotels (I've seen "Sinatra" in Ramallah, for example) in the next town over. As they drive on, the gunner trains his scope's cross on a still breathing but disemboweled donkey lying in the rubble, and an old man in a burnoose sitting impassively at an outdoor card table, across from a player whose brains are dripping out of his bowed head. Yigal spends a lot of time following the movements of a beautiful, stripped-naked woman searching hysterically for her five-year old daughter in heaps of concrete. A family photo lies in the middle of a blasted room. Having pulled his trigger again and again, Yigal is responsible for all of it. Sharing his view through the scope, so, in some way, is the movie audience.

The gore is literally nauseating, and will certainly repel American viewers unaccustomed to Al-Jazeera's videography, but "Lebanon" is a powerful, thought-provoking film, because of its perspective. Gazing at wounded, enraged, dying Arabs from the inside of a fortified metal shell is surely one metaphor for the Israeli experience. Its spare-ness is compelling too. The viewer never understands why the reluctant gunner took the job in the first place. Perhaps he doesn't either.

"Women Without Men," is a haunting, beautiful elegy to the dead in Iran's revolutions in the last half-century. Directed by Iranian filmmaker and photographer Shirin Neshat, the film took the festival's second prize, the Silver Lion. Set during the CIA-backed coup of 1953, it follows the lives of four women as the nation seethes in a moment of turmoil that set the stage for a half-century of Great Game oil scrimmages in the region.

The most memorable character and the spiritual center of the film, played by the riveting Hungarian actress Orsi Toth, is the self-loathing prostitute Zarin. In the movie's most powerful scene, Zarin flees the brothel after cracking up when one of her clients tries to hold her hand instead of just zipping up. She flees to a hamam draped in a sheet, unveiling herself before horrified women and children in the steam as a ghastly white anorexic form, all clavicles, knee-bones and rib cage. She takes a loofah and attacks her own skin until she's oozing blood from head to toe.

Later, she wanders out of the city and wakes up in an Edenic pond, in the middle of an orchard, recently purchased by the bored, rich wife of a general, in the process of leaving her husband. Soon they are joined by a third female outcast, a young religious woman and rape victim.

The backdrop for this Utopian fantasy is seething Tehran, as the government of the nationalist and left-leaning Mohammed Mossadeq is about to be toppled in a military coup. A third main female character, Munis, told by her Orthodox Muslim brother that she must get married because she is an old maid at 30, kills herself by jumping off a roof, and re-emerges as a spectral presence in a black abaya, helping the communists in their doomed attempt to rouse the people to resist.

"All that we wanted was to find a new way," she says, as the film winds down.

In Israel and Iran, though, those "new ways" rarely replace ritualized interactions between men and women and antique mores of honor, machismo and power. The characters feint at honest interactions, but are depleted before they even start.

In "Lebanon," in a non sequitur of the obligatory guy-talk scene, Yigal reels off a soliloquy about how when his father died of a cardiac arrest, he was a teenager and unmoved except for the arousal he felt when his teacher hugged him. A renewed burst of fake tears won him a second embrace, and he came all over the teacher. "I got a hard-on just listening to that story," his buddy opines.

Throughout the film, the men periodically stop mid-action to announce, "I have to pee." They urinate into a metal box, and the act of taking it down and putting it back in its shelf is their link to civilization when all else is broken down. At one point, the tank picks up a Syrian "terrorist" and is charged with transporting him to interrogation. The Syrian, predictably, announces he has to pee, and Yigal is tasked with unzipping and helping the terrorist aim his stream into the box, as the man's hands are chained behind him.

In "Women Without Men," repeated fuck-and-zip scenes set the stage for prostitute Zarin's self-loathing. The impassive prostitute looks off in the distance, as the body below her neck is rhythmically poked. Only the sound of zipping up or down announces the next interaction.

Man's inhumanity to woman, man and animal, occasional glimmers of tenderness, are the subjects of these two films. In the Middle East, what passes for normal life - love, death, doing the laundry - hardly resembles what Americans or Europeans know of the mundane. Civil conflict, international violence, misogyny, the whims of Mad Generals and Mullahs, permeate every waking moment, not veiled and distant as news of a drone dropping a bomb in Afghanistan.

"Lebanon" was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival in August.

"Women Without Men" will not likely be seen by Iranians in Iran.