'Armadillo' follows the Danes to war
We couldn’t be too far from a reality-television show about the current wars. Every week our cast of soldiers confronts both the uncertain terrors of combat and the doldrums of downtime. The men would explain war’s emotional toll. We’d see firefights. It would all be packaged as a kind of stylized episodic entertainment centered on a digestible conceit like personality or closure. I can’t think of a feature-length documentary that has truly trivialized these wars by applying certain reality-show principles — by pushing personalities to the foreground, say. Many nonfiction films about the war in Afghanistan are more drawn to atmosphere and morality than personality or story. Thereness is often the movie’s biggest asset.
“Armadillo,’’ a Danish documentary set in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province that opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a curious amalgam of reality TV and serious art. It’s so alarmingly, disorientingly beautiful that its well-madeness seems to be the point more than any surprising or trenchant idea about the war or its participants. It’s been given the structure and arc of certain combat fiction. Innocents enlist and experience confusion, terror, exhilaration, and disillusionment. The credits list a “dramaturgical advisor.’’
One of the opening scenes is set at the dinner table of the family of a young soldier named Mads. As his mother expresses worry and bewilderment at his decision to enlist in the Danish Army, the camera shoots each face with intense closeness. The conversation takes place in near darkness. Who eats dinner this way? Seconds later Mads is whooping it up at a small pre-deployment party with some fellow soldiers and a few strippers, while the frame freezes and their first names pop onto the screen alongside a nickname (pint-size Mads’s is “Mini’’). Since the movie isn’t truly interested in them as “characters,’’ it’s a misleading introduction. You sense that the director, Janus Metz, liked that stylistic flourish. You never stop sensing that.
Within minutes, he declares the adventurously ominous mood he’s in. For most of the film, he uses a soundscape score, by Uno Helmersson, that consists of engorged single notes paired with rumbles, beats, and sighs. It doesn’t matter whether Metz is along for a panicked gunfight, listening to Mads call his parents, or watching any of the moments in which the men play video games, or horse around — the grim notes of that score are there. There’s more to “Armadillo,’’ which is the name of the Danes’ base, than the way it feels. Metz is using superb framing and painterly light to heighten the sense of danger. But form predominates. I watched the soldiers on motorbikes doing wheelies in the dust or dancing to music we can’t hear while Helmersson’s score rhythmically booms like a bombing pulse, and I thought of the way Terrence Malick has used similar effects to generate a kind of wistful beauty out of youthful masculinity. “Armadillo’’ often feels like Malick by a different name.
Metz is similarly drawn to the incongruity of killing and innocence. The Afghans tell the Danes they don’t know who to trust — foreign troops or the Taliban. Those are the most compelling moments (the quietest, too). The mutual uncertainty is the moral heart of the matter: Who’s on whose side?
Metz is another artist more interested in war’s side effects than combat itself, although he and his crew are embedded for battle. This was the thrust of “Restrepo,’’ the acutely immersive 2010 film Sebastian Junger and the photographer Tim Hetherington made of a different phase of the same war — that its particular complexity is deranging and possibly unmanageable. “Restrepo’’ has a shagginess that complements the risk of its makers and the showiness of their filmmaking: They’re always on their heels. (In April, Hetherington was killed on assignment amid the unrest in Libya.) “Armadillo’’ tries to apply the tidiness of structure to a subject that seems to mock it. That’s both daring and self-serving. But it gives the movie an air of premeditation. It also provides the film the quality I suspect might matter utmost to Metz. It’s alluring to watch.