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MOVIE REVIEWS : Scars of War Disfigure 'I Don't Give a Damn'

February 19, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Movies that focus on the torment of returning soldiers--from John Huston's "Let There be Light" to Hal Ashby's "Coming Home"--can convey war's horrors more woundingly than a gruesome battle saga. But not always.

Rafi, the young protagonist of "I Don't Give a Damn" (selected theaters)--Israel's most popular movie last year, and its nominee for the foreign film Oscar--is a young soldier, paralyzed from the legs down. An impulsive, idealistic guy before enlistment, he turns into an abrasive, self-pitying cynic. He punishes everyone around him--his mother, whom he ignores; his father, whom he drives to a suicide attempt; his brother and sister-in-law, whose home he trashes; his best friend, whom he insults, and his fiancee, whom he dumps.

Rarely has any handicapped hero behaved so boorishly. If Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo--famous for pushing a wheelchaired victim down a staircase in "Kiss of Death"--had met actor Ika Sohar's Rafi, Widmark probably would have gotten kicked downstairs himself.

In a way, the film is the study of a handicapped victim's resentment of and prejudices against the healthy. Seemingly, Rafi--a handsome, personable young man who gives no signs of such vicious self-absorption before his injury--can relate only to other paraplegics, though he's rough on most of them as well. His self-pity is so absolute that, after a while, it's hard to give a damn about him.

Rafi's outsider's stance is telegraphed by the Bruce Springsteen and James Dean posters on his bedroom wall--but we never really feel his torment, and his anguish often seems mere pigheadedness. Writer Hana Peled and director Shmuel Imberman may not get mawkish, but they only skim the surface here. Imberman has a bright, sunny style--he seems most comfortable in the bouncy love scenes between Rafi and his persecuted sweetheart Nira (Anat Waxman)--and he rarely touches the kind of emotions Fred Zinnemann and Marlon Brando pulled from a similar situation in 1950's "The Men."

In "I Don't Give a Damn" (MPAA rated R: for language, sex and nudity) there's an obvious anti-war undercurrent. Yet it's never really stressed: Rafi's irresponsibility shows as much in his rejection of the army, as his surly churlishness toward family and friends. And it's perhaps the film's basic optimism and brightness, that prevents the the drama from igniting. It's as if apathy were a worse enemy than aggression, bad manners a more wounding crime than bloodshed.

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