A Satire of Israeli Military Grief
Writer-director Samuel Maoz’s family war drama has some knockout sequences that can certainly bowl you over. Despite its polished visuals, and flawless performances, it is not an easy watch, as it deals with extreme emotional pain and life’s horrible ironies.
Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler) Feldman are troubled Israeli parents who are informed that their son Jonathan (Yonathan [Yonaton] Shiray) has been killed on active duty at his desolate military post. This is only the start of their troubles.
“Foxtrot” starts out as a claustrophobic chamber drama exploring what unfolds when word of horrors reaches families back home. Middle-aged couple Dafna and Michael receive the most unwelcome houseguests conceivable – soldiers, visiting to break the news that their son Jonathan has fallen in the line of duty. Dafna faints immediately, while Michael freezes on the spot for what feels like minutes.
As we watch, in uncomfortable close-up, the couple’s world comes crashing down around them. Ashkenazi is staggering when plumbing the depths of Michael’s despair. While attempting to comfort Michael, the soldiers bizarrely fixate on the importance of remaining hydrated. They even set his phone to issue hourly reminders to drink water, ensuring that this inane advice is reiterated at the most inopportune moments. And then, a bleakly hilarious twist that renders much of what we’ve seen thus far meaningless.
We are then taken to a remote roadblock on Israel’s northern border where we see a young soldier dancing the foxtrot, using his rifle as a partner and dwarfed by the expansive blue sky above. This begins a playful, melancholic reflection on the inanity of everyday modern military life. Conscription in Israel ensures that a majority of its citizens squander years of their youth in such conditions.
The film tells three stories preoccupied with young Israeli conscripts, the Holocaust and the country’s uneasy relationship with its neighbors. Each section has its own unique style. The first takes place with Michael and Dafna receiving the tragic news that their son has died whilst on military duty. The second tale is located at an unspecified checkpoint in the desert, where four young conscripts watch as camels and a few Arabs in cars pass by, and it’s quirky and humorous. Then, for the third part, the tone is bittersweet, as we are back with the parents reminiscing about the past over late-night dessert.
Director Maoz is show that even when characters live under a permanent dark cloud, there are also moments of laughter. Jonathan’s body has not been found and there is a lack of information about the death that frustrates the parents. The dialogue has plenty of implied criticism of the Israeli state, especially when the procedure for a soldier’s funeral is explained and it seems that the government is more concerned with its own image than the emotional wellbeing of the parents. The conversation is tragicomic and insensitive, rather than patriotic.
For the four young men at the checkpoint, Maoz uses quirky humor to show how unstable their lives are. They are bored, they fear that their lives could end at any moment. The boys amuse themselves by playing a game, rolling a can across an uneven floor that is slowly sinking into the soil. There are moments of surreal brilliance: an amazing solo dance scene, a demonstration of the foxtrot that is used to emphasize the circle of life. These visuals reinforce the fact that this is a reality that should not be considered normal. The boys tell stories of their parents and grandparents, and behind it all, almost as if it is the start of history, is the Holocaust. It’s an inescapable collective trauma, governing all of the lives that we see on screen; the point at which everything begins and, possibly, ends.
There are many moments of heart-breaking brilliance, but the plot veers in so many different directions that it eventually spins out of control. The tonal shifts are brave but do not always work like in an animated sequence recalling the Holocaust, where the visuals seem vulgar and heavy-handed. Even though this is a beguiling and ambitious film, it is occasionally infuriating because Maoz tries to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet too many times and there are moments that the film trips over its dependency on coincidence.
“Foxtrot” does the foxtrot, as the character Joseph explains to his captive audience. 3 steps, and you return to the same place – or, rather, 3 very different acts bookended by the same scene. A lot of the surprises and finesse of the movie come from the way in which director Samuel Maoz deftly switches tones and style. We start with a devastating tale of grief as the parents spiral into an oblivion that threatens to eat them alive. It’s an emotional, powerful piece of work that could have formed the bulk of the movie, but which ends unexpectedly in a masterfully Hitchcockian twist.
This is followed by a look at a surrealist nightmare of epic proportions. We turn to the Foxtrot unit where biggest threat to safety is a lone camel. The checkpoint, with all its vintage equipment, posters, and cultural debris feels like a forgotten relic from the 1950s; and the men who inhabit it, slowly sinking into the mud, have become distanced from temporal reality in this film about the pointlessness and banality in war: There’s just anticipation and boredom, regret and loss.
The final portion of Foxtrot returns to the Feldman house for a concluding act that’s alternately tragic, hilarious, and surprising in equal measure. For a section of the film that is filled with more subtle glances and actions rather than dialogue, it’s compelling and believable stuff: we see a rollercoaster of emotion, regret, and hope that perfectly encapsulates all we’ve seen so far in the film. It highlights everything that is wrong with a damaged culture.
It is the unifying factors and themes that run through each of these portions that make “Foxtrot” an exciting experience. It is a brutal dissection of Israeli life seems to be Maoz’s main concern. The constant threat of conflict, combined with the requirement of national service and the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over everything, gives diverse meanings to the images presented onscreen and presents a portrait of a society in retrograde. The film is totally unique and compelling. here
This is a film that goes to great lengths to show everything wrong with a damaged culture, yet one that sidesteps the main issue. Not only does it show the banality and pointlessness of death, it is a rich cultural study of the Israeli people. The tragically poignant final frames face an audience that does not know whether to laugh or cry.