Samuel Maoz, now a well known Israeli film director, was a 20-year-old tank gunner in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. When he later became an documentary film maker, his army experience ultimately led him to write and direct Lebanon (2009), the story of an Israeli tank crew, seen entirely from inside the tank. This powerful film won many awards including a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Maoz, who draws on topics often highly controversial in Israel, has most recently written and directed Foxtrot, a powerful story of loss, grief and the unending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, leavened with touches of black comedy.
The movie opens with the ring of a doorbell in a fashionable Tel Aviv high-rise. Mrs. Feldman, played by Sara Adler, opens the door and faints dead away at the sight of three uniformed Israeli army officers, which can only mean that her son Jonathan has been killed in the line of duty. In a well-practiced maneuver, they catch, sedate and carry her into the bedroom. Her husband Michael, played by Lior Ashkenazi, familiar to Israeli audiences, looks on in silence and is devastated. The officers give him medication too, and tell him to set his cell phone alarm to ring every hour as a reminder to drink water frequently. Obviously the notification team has done this drill all too many times. As his wife sleeps off the injection, visitors, including his brother, converge on the apartment to console the couple. In a state of shock, Michael sleepwalks through their visits. When his dog comes in to nuzzle him, he steps on the dog’s paw. He goes into the bathroom and deliberately burns his hand with very hot water. Then another officer, a young Orthodox lieutenant, arrives to assure them that the army will handle all funeral arrangements, reciting a highly choreographed schedule. Although the lieutenant means well, he cannot connect with the grief stricken father. The first half of the film is largely dominated by Michael’s sorrow and anger.
The story then shifts to a remote army checkpoint on a deteriorated road in a desolate area. A four-man team mans the outpost, which is little more than a searchlight, a gate, and a shipping container where the men sleep. Here, in one of the more memorable scenes, a soldier does a dance with his M-16, a short bit worth the price of admission. The soldiers are miserable as winter rains have created mud and deep puddles everywhere. A camel walks along the road, the men nonchalantly raise the gate, and the camel continues into the darkness. Not a word is spoken. The men, isolated and bored, flip through Israeli equivalents of Playboy and roll C-ration cans on the floor of the shipping container to gauge its settlement into the sand. (Anyone who has ever served in the army will identify with these scenes.) A car driven by a Palestinian couple stops. The searchlight illumines them as they show their identification, then the gate lifts, and they drive away. A few other cars, all with Palestinian occupants, come along. One couple in particular is humiliated by being forced to get out of their car in the rain. Then a terrible thing happens.
All of the performances are outstanding but Ashkenazi’s character is most developed, and thus the most accomplished and powerful. Cinematography is extraordinary, with many moving close-ups of anguished faces and unusual camera angles, including a prolonged overhead shot of Michael pacing the strikingly patterned apartment floor. The darkly comedic scenes of the team at the checkpoint turn very dark indeed. And underlying all – but never explicitly referenced – is the conflict between the Israelis’ struggle for security and Palestinian yearning for their own state. The film’s title refers to the once-popular dance in which each couple move around in a square, only to return to the starting point. Ironically Foxtrot’s minimal soundtrack, accounting for no more than 10 percent of the film, has an outsized impact. Humor, too, but of the darkest stripe, enters into the mix. Although Foxtrot, Israeli’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, did not make the final cut, it has received numerous international and film festival awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Not unexpectedly, liberal quarters in Israel have embraced the film, while the right wing Israeli culture minister condemned it unseen. I loved and was quite moved by this film.
Foxtrot just opened this past weekend at the Embarcadero, the only Bay Area venue thus far, but should open more widely next week at the Rafael and in the East Bay. Running time: 113 minutes. Like so many good films, it should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate Maoz’s artistry. Ciao, Ian