Film Review: Foxtrot

From the director of 'Lebanon,' this anatomy of a family tragedy, anchored by a stunning turn from Lior Ashkenazi, mingles realism and the surreal to convey the immorality of war.
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Foxtrot, the extraordinary follow-up to Lebanon by Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz, explores the ordeal of an Israeli couple who are told in the story's opening moments that their young son, serving in the military, has "fallen in the line of duty." The most strikingly original aspect of the film (which snagged the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) is the way Maoz shapes the narrative into a tripartite structure, each section with its own style, tone and possibly alternative realities. Some viewers will scratch their heads. Others will applaud Foxtrot's slow-fuse delivery, which continues to unfold its dark meanings long after the closing titles.

Part one depicts with near-excruciating realism the grief of the boy's parents, Michael and Daphna Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) on learning their son has "fallen"—the term insisted upon by the military. Then, maybe 45 minutes in, the film jumps to a remote desert outpost manned by four young soldiers, the intense tedium of their daily routines conveyed in surrealistic manner. Among the kids is Feldmann's son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray). To reveal further details about this plot reversal would do the film a disservice. Part three circles back to the Feldmann's apartment in Tel Aviv, where the couple struggles to absorb further twists in the convoluted story.

In the opening section, when Daphna opens the door on a pair of soldiers, she faints dead away, as her husband stares in disbelief. The scene is all the more agonizing when you think that successive Israeli generations have endured a similar moment when their soldier offspring are somewhere out there so the country can survive in a toxic environment. Perhaps most appalling is the way the military tries to routinize trauma. The soldiers expertly sedate Daphna, who's collapsed before they ever spoke. They instruct her husband Michael, frozen in murderous rage, to drink water every hour "for the shock." The army chaplain lays out details of the funeral service, adding, "You can play a song. We have a great sound system." Michael wants only to see his son's body—until he fears there isn't one.

When part two jumps to the desolate border patrol manned by four boys who might be freshly out of high school, the tone turns eerily surreal. Home is a shipping container that appears to be sinking into the muck, beside it a vehicle displaying a smiling blonde from a ’50s ice cream ad. Occasionally the kids raise the gate for Palestinian travelers (in one coruscating scene, a couple dressed for a wedding are made to stand in the rain), just as often for a passing camel.

Mostly, these boy soldiers wrestle with tedium, watching birds through a telescope (the lush strains of Mahler on the soundtrack), rolling a can of vile potted meat down the shipping container's incline, or tuning in old radio broadcasts with staticky voices from some Stygian realm. In a set-piece that's both freakish and thrilling, Jonathan explodes in a wild, sexy dance with his rifle, as an old ballroom chestnut blasts from the soundtrack. Maoz's vision thwarts expectations at every turn, and before long a tragedy is unleashed, largely triggered by the soldiers' lack of experience.

At the Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards, Foxtrot won eight prizes, including best picture, and will rep Israel's bid for a foreign-language Oscar. Make no mistake, the film mounts a multi-pronged attack on the Israeli military. (Israel's culture minister has condemned it sight-unseen.) Yet Foxtrot is more ambitious than merely a political broadside. Lior Ashkenazi, often shot in extreme close-up, stretches beyond realism to convey a fury that tips toward madness. (In preparation for the role, the actor kept himself in a sleep-deprived state.) Foxtrot speaks to the inability to process what cannot be absorbed. That's likely why Maoz opted for a splintered structure over conventional narrative. No glass of water or "good sound system" can assuage the squandering of a young life. Maoz reaches, too, for a larger message in the image of the foxtrot, the dancer's feet returning inevitably to the starting position, to signal that the characters are destined, no matter what, to end up in the same spot.

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