By Liam Lacey
Foxtrot, Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz's follow-up to his 2009 film Lebanon, is a marvel of precision filmmaking, heartbreak and blistering absurdity. One of last year’s most critically-praised international films, it was snubbed as a Foreign Film Oscar nom, likely for its "controversy."
After Foxtrot won a Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, the film was denounced by the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, for contributing to "the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the form of art."
In truth, her use of the phrase, "the most moral army in the world," often repeated in Israel political speeches, schools and the media, goes to the heart of the ethical dilemma Moaz explores: A nation born out of the Holocaust and founded by history's most persecuted minority now owns the role of oppressor in the longest military occupation in modern history. The film is less an indictment than a diagnosis of a collective pathology: Israel's cycle of violence and grief is metaphorically, pictured as an obsessive-compulsive dance, the "foxtrot" of the title, where you advance and retreat and end up exactly where you started.
The film is structured in three parts, a kind of puzzle, with two narrative twists. In the first of three segments, an attractive prosperous middle-aged couple, Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are in their modern Tel Aviv apartment when they receive visitors. When she opens the door, Dafna instantly recognizes what the visit means: She screams and collapses.
The visitors are soldiers, bringing the news that the Feldmans' soldier son, Jonathan, has been killed. The soldiers spring into action, giving her a shot of sedative in the thigh. While she is put to bed, her husband watches, stunned.
The soldiers, who seem practiced at this, set him in a chair, provide him with a help-line to call and set up a text on his phone to make sure that he gets regularly hydrated with an hourly buzzer, which jabs at him like a needle.
The military mourning operation kicks in: Michael's older brother, Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) arrives and begins to take over the funeral arrangements and wording of the obit. An officer from the "military rabbinate" arrives and outlines the funeral protocol. Michael visits Jonathan's grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, who has dementia. She confuses Michael with his older brother, and though she seems to remember who Jonathan is, she has no response to his death.
One of the most striking aspects of this first segment is how Moaz visually communicates the disorientation of grief and shock. Michael is an architect and his boxy elegant modern apartment begins to feel like a madhouse theatre set. There's an optical-illusion checkerboard floor pattern, and we return, occasionally, to an abstract painting on the wall, a scratchy series of rectangles descending into a vortex, suggesting barbed wire. Retreating into the bathroom to be alone, Michael, shot from above, paces like a caged animal, until he puts his hand under the hot water tap, deliberately scalding himself for the pain he needs to feel.
The film's second segment takes us to the desert, a checkpoint in northern Israel, where Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) and four other young soldiers wait by a roadside checkpoint, fending off fear and boredom. Surrounded by decrepit computers and piles of cigarette butts, they play first-person shooter video games, measure how quickly the steel shipping container where they live is sinking in the mud, and tell each other stories.
Jonathan, an artist, draws cartoons and tells the tale of how his father, as a teen-ager, sold a family Bible for a porn magazine. It’s a parable about amnesia and obliteration of values. But then, the men are young and randy. In one astonishing set-piece, which is shown in its entirely in one of the film’s trailers, a soldier performs a sensual air-humping pas-de-deux with his Uzi.
At night, the boy soldiers wake to raise the gate and shine their flashlights into passing cars with Arab passengers, whom they order out of their vehicles at gunpoint while papers are checked. In the most pathetic scene, a middle-aged woman in fancy evening dress is forced to stand in the rain -- her hair unravelling, make-up running, her purse contents strewn on the ground. Another night, there's a predictable miscue and tragedy strikes.
The third, quietest section of Foxtrot takes us back to Tel Aviv, and returns to Michael and Dafna, struggling to cope. The dynamic has changed: Michael has moved out. The sequence is stripped bare of the surreal digressions as we see a couple in their own struggle for survival, yet no familiar consoling coda here. The shocks keep coming, to the film's last piercing frame.
Foxtrot. Directed and written by Samuel Moaz. Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler and Yonaton Shiray. Foxtrot plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.