MARCH 22, 2018 – An audacious film that melds raw emotion and absurdist allegory into a blistering assessment of contemporary Israel, Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot” deserves to be seen and demands to be discussed.
Winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and eight Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscars) including best film, director, and actor, “Foxtrot” uses a small-scale story to examine some of Israel’s deepest issues: the sacred concept of military sacrifice, the oppression of Palestinians, and the legacy of the Holocaust.
Skillfully strewn with ironies all the way to the final shot, “Foxtrot” was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards but did not receive a nomination.
The film begins with a middle-aged man named Michael Feldman (played by the sublime Lior Ashkenazi, the fictitious prime minister in last year’s “Norman” and Yitzhak Rabin in the just-released “7 Days in Entebbe”) opening his door to the worst possible news for a father with a son in the army. Even as the gravity of the situation and the intensity of his response wallop us in the face, writer/director Maoz undercuts the emotional naturalism with precision camerawork and stylized set design.
At first, it appears the filmmaker is evoking the surreal, detached, and alienating experience of being struck with a life-changing bulletin. But we get the nagging feeling, from the father’s black-humor interactions with the army representatives to the off-center introductions of his wife and daughter, that there’s more on tap than the melodrama of domestic tragedy.
Indeed, Maoz pulls the rug out of from under us, then cuts from the climate-controlled setting of a high-in-the-sky condo to an isolated checkpoint in the barren, forgotten north of Israel. This is where the son, Yonatan, is assigned to guard a remote, nonessential road with a handful of other bored young men.
The tilted shipping container that comprises the soldiers’ base and barracks fronts a mud field, which they must trudge across to reach the checkpoint.
Nothing happens in this godforsaken spot, and everything happens here. Each detail has significance, though one must pay close attention because it may not be clear until events play out. In fact, the meaning of a close-up or sound cue often remains obscure until the movie is over, at which point the viewer is required to arrive at his or her own interpretation.
Two key events occur at Yonatan’s base, one at the checkpoint involving a carload of Palestinians heading home from a party and the other in the barracks when the soldiers are passing downtime. The latter scene, in which Yonatan relates an anecdote from his father’s youth, is the most astonishing passage in this taboo-trampling movie.
Yonatan has rendered his memory into a graphic novel, and Maoz brings it to life in the form of animation. This harrowing episode connects the Holocaust ‒ and the self-reliance, persistence, shared sacrifice, and residual faith that the survivors applied to building the Jewish state ‒ to a modern Israel where idealism has curdled into a pursuit of temporary pleasures and its own offenses.
To be sure, in every land older generations castigate young people for ignoring tradition and abandoning their core values. But this parable takes place in Israel, so Yonatan’s father’s rashness hearkens to Esau swapping his birthright for a bowl of stew.
Threaded through “Foxtrot” is a critique of Israel’s leaders for maintaining a culture of cynicism and corruption that results in the unnecessary deaths of young soldiers. Furthermore, each loss is described as heroic regardless of the circumstances.
This is not unique to Israel, of course, but it’s harder to push back against the military spin when you’re a small country surrounded by enemies rather than a superpower. Maoz satirizes army functionaries in the opening scene, in fact, and never stops spearing sacred cows.
Maoz’s triumph, finally, thanks in large measure to Ashkenazi’s unexpectedly vulnerable performance, is tracking the human cost amid the not-quite-real scenarios and sociopolitical commentary.
“Foxtrot” is an altogether remarkable work, not least because it is a beautiful film about ugly truths.
“Foxtrot” is in Hebrew with English subtitles. It runs 113 minutes and is rated “R” for some sexual content, including graphic images, and brief drug use.