By turns irritating, confounding, and endlessly fascinating, the animated Israeli documentary Waltz with Bashir is, at the very least, not the kind of movie that comes along all that often. I can't say that it's unlike any movie you've ever seen before, not knowing what movies you've seen, but it's certainly unlike any movie I've ever seen. At the very least, it treats on its particular topic in a manner completely unfamiliar, and quite effective at the same time.

Writer/director/producer/subject Ari Folman, we learn fairly early, fought in the 1982 siege of Beirut during Israel's war with Lebanon. At the time, he was all of 19 years old, and not particularly well-suited to dealing with the horrors of warfare, particularly the murder of a large number of Palestinians living in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. Thus did he block those memories once the war was over, and thus for 20 years did he live in a blissful post-traumatic state.

Eventually, his friend Boaz Rein-Buskila came to him with a recurring dream: 26 dogs chasing through the streets of Beirut, bloody revenge on their mind. This dream, and Rein-Buskila's explanation for what it meant in relationship to his own experiences during the war, forced Folman into an uncomfortable realisation: he had no memories whatever of those days, what he did or witnessed. All he had was a brand-new recurring dream of his own: he and two other young men, floating naked in the sea, watching as falling mortars lit up a Beirut apartment building. Intuitively knowing that this dream had something to do with the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Folman explored his lost time in the best manner he, as a filmmaker, knew of: he cast himself and his experiences in the center of an exploratory documentary looking to uncover the truth of September, 1982, with the aid of several other men who were there at the same time, and whose memories weren't so hidden. From start to finish it took Folman four years to complete Waltz with Bashir, and the result is entirely worth his efforts: it is one of the most probing cinematic depictions of what war does to men's minds of which I am aware.

It's important to note what Waltz with Bashir is not: a documentary of the 1982 Lebanon War. It is not pro- or anti-Israeli in relationship to that conflict; nor is it pro- or anti-Palestinian. It isn't even anti-war as such, except insofar as it argues that every war is damaging to the soldiers who fight it, which I can't imagine qualifies as a revolutionary argument.

Instead, the film is about the process of remembering and forgetting, about having the courage to face down whatever demons hide in the dusty corners of one's own mind. Taking the details of the conflict and the massacre as read (which isn't to say that it's confusing to an ignorant Yankee like your humble reviewer; it's fairly easy to grasp enough of what's going on to get by), Waltz with Bashir, if it were a work of fiction, could fairly easily be transplanted to any conflict in recent history. Its focus is almost exclusively on some men who were in the combat zone and didn't like what they saw: not just Folman, but other members of his squad, his bunkmate, and people who seem to lack and personal connection to the filmmaker at all. If we wanted, it would probably be easy and accurate to suggest that the men being interviewed are metaphors for Israel itself, eager to forget its history - both as victim and aggressor - but I don't know that the very real individuals whose stories comprise Waltz with Bashir's narrative would particularly appreciate that.

Only at the very end does the film threaten to tip into political argument, in the film's only live-action sequence (stock footage from 1982), that seems to exist mostly to point out that the events discussed in the film really actually took place, it wasn't just a dramatic conceit. At least, this is my guess. Whatever the case, I found this nifty little ending to be, by far, the most unsuccessful part of the film, simply because it tries so hard in so many ways, to be many things that the rest of the movie is not.

That Waltz with Bashir is animated is not an incidental thing, of course; but I was unprepared for how weirdly effective Folman's use of the medium turned out to be. The film was created using a technology that was essentially invented from scratch; I don't want to get into a whole discussion about animation tech, but the ultimate effect is not unlike the digital rotoscoping in something like Waking Life, though there is not a scrap of rotoscoping to be found in Waltz with Bashir. It's only the appearance that is similar: characters who seem to be made up of disjointed parts floating above the background rather than interacting with the world properly. The character animation on display is exceptionally modular, by which I mean that each part of the body moves independently of all the rest, in a manner that is altogether distracting and eerie. At times, it borders on the outright disgusting, such as when a character shifts his eyeline, and his eyes float, disembodied, across the surface of his face.

To say "this is alienating and disgusting", however, is not the same as saying "this fails", and the peculiar animation in Waltz with Bashir contributes more than just about any other element of the film to the whole matter. A film about the inherent unreliability of memory, which can be erased, invented or nudged seemingly at random; this is a film in which stable reality is itself threatened - reality being nothing but the sum total of all our memories of what has been "real" prior to the present moment. That the film looks so otherworldly and strange, that events play out in a way that looks more like a crude parody of humanity than humanity itself, this is an essential piece of the film's argument. Waltz with Bashir surely does not present a dreamscape, nor can it be rightly called surreal, but the unsettling "off"-ness of the visuals is as clear a sign as anything spoken aloud that everything in this film - everything revealed to be true or learned to be false - is built upon an unsturdy, unreal semblance of history. It is at times unpleasant and grim, and in the final analysis it is extremely wearying to sit through, but it is an altogether powerful work of art, even so.