Fancy footwork: ‘Foxtrot’ is a rich, intricate dance

Foxtrot is the rare art house film with real suspense, and it holds your attention to the last moment, which contains a surprise that adds another layer to the tragedy.

Lior Ashkenazi in 'Foxtrot.' (photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
Lior Ashkenazi in 'Foxtrot.'
(photo credit: GIORA BEJACH)
Directed by Samuel Maoz With Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray, Shira Haas Running time: 108 minutes.
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot is a Greek tragedy set in modern-day Israel, an allegory about the contradictions at the heart of the country. Add some hipster vaudeville and Samuel Beckett-infused irony, and you have a brilliant movie, one that is so rich thematically, visually, musically and emotionally, that one viewing is not enough to begin to absorb all it has to offer.
Maoz’s leftist sensibility has ignited the hostility of Israel’s minister of culture and sport (a bizarrely Sovietsounding title), and anyone who finds value in the critiques of someone who hasn’t bothered to see the movie may as well stop reading here and start composing a scathing comment. But people who love and care about movies should see Foxtrot, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.
The film, which swept the Ophir Awards and won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in early September, is a more than worthy follow-up to Maoz’s 2009 Venice Golden Lion winner, Lebanon.
The story in Foxtrot is told in three acts. In the first act, the Feldmans, an upscale Tel Aviv couple, receive the news that their son, Yonatan, a soldier, has been killed. Dafna (Sarah Adler), the mother, faints and is given a tranquilizer by the officers who have been sent to notify the family. The father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), goes numb but keeps functioning. The Feldmans, who live in a large art-filled apartment with a panoramic view of Tel Aviv, have everything and suddenly have nothing. The apartment is transformed in seconds into a prison, a bunker and a hospital ward.
As Michael struggles to get through the day — discussing funeral arrangements with an IDF chaplain, drinking water on the hour as the IDF officers instructed him to, informing his senile mother of Yonatan’s death — the film focuses on strange, seemingly random details: the tile pattern on the floor, the maze-like image in a painting on the wall, peppy elderly couples in a nursing-home dance class, a flock of birds in the sky. The details haunt the film the way they haunt our psyches when we deal with a trauma, and the nightmare of Michael’s grief is so real it is hard to watch. But as the story takes surprising turns, each detail turns out to have been anything but random.
In the second section, we are introduced to Yonatan (Yonatan Shiray), who is stationed at an isolated IDF outpost, somewhere in the desert, where watching passing camels is often the high point of the day.
Yonatan and his fellow soldiers, including one who does the sexy and satirical dance that is shown in the trailer, are out of reach of the Internet and seem to have descended into a parallel universe. Foxtrot is both a word used in military code and a highly symbolic dance where the dancer ends up where he started. In this bleak wilderness, the soldiers listen to retro love songs and roll cans of disgusting prepared meat across the floor to gauge how fast the container they live in is sinking into the sand. While this metaphor for modern-day Israel and its discontents may sound overly obvious, this section is so lively that the metaphor will only become apparent in retrospect.
They couldn’t be more gentle or likable, but they are soldiers and are tasked with searching the Palestinians who drive on this stretch of road. An act of violence destroys the idyll, one that recalls a scene from Apocalypse Now. Like all tragedies, it is inevitable, and it changes their world forever.
Without giving away the intricately constructed story, the final act is the Feldmans’ attempt to find a note of grace in their loss.
Accepting his Ophir Award, Ashkenazi, who gives a nuanced, careful and moving performance, said, “Foxtrot is the most Israeli movie,” and that is true. It touches on almost every aspect of the Israeli experience. Where else would a cultured, intellectual family like the Feldmans send their son off to a squalid outpost to do the dirty work that is meant to keep us all safe? Where else in the modern world would those steeped in European and Jewish culture find themselves face to face with camels, ankle-deep in damp sand?
To tell this story, which works on so many levels, Maoz uses every tool in his filmmaker’s kit: animated comics; a Holocaust story that hovers in the background but touches every generation; bold images such as the faded picture of a grinning blonde painted on a van. All of them are clues to who we are as Israelis and how we got here. Each moment in the film creates part of a mosaic, but the final picture turns out differently from what you thought it would be.
Maoz, a cerebral filmmaker, puts the characters into situations where we can’t help but empathize with them but keeps them at a bit of a distance. We care about them and we are interested in them, but we are not completely with them. That may be because what they are going through is so difficult, that the only way to watch this film is to step back from it just a little.
In spite of this distance, Foxtrot is the rare art house film with real suspense, and it holds your attention to the last moment, which contains a surprise that adds another layer to the tragedy. This is a movie that will provoke strong reactions and spark arguments, but it cannot be dismissed.