A unique voice in world cinema, Samuel Maoz has made only two feature films in his career. The first, Lebanon, took the viewer on a tense, claustrophobic ride inside a tank with four scared Israeli soldiers and won the Gold Lion in Venice in 2009. Back in Venice competition eight years later, Foxtrot is his second film and exponentially more anguishing. It takes its place among the boldest, angriest critiques of contemporary Israel, specifically the army's use of immature young people to carry out its political agenda.
Foxtrot, which is a dance as well as an army code word, depicts contemporary Israel as a very surreal place, but one causing genuine pain and psychological damage. The film's originality lies in its difficult, intense narration, but Maoz doesn't seem to worry about losing some puzzled viewers along the way with comprehension issues. For those who reach the end, the story makes perfect sense. The film should have a full carnet of festival dates (Telluride is its next stop) with the more adventurous art houses following.
The film is divided into three unequal parts that fit together after a while. In the first, an army detail rings the bell of the Feldman family to inform them that their son Jonathan has been killed in the line of duty. On this dramatic note we meet Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi of Late Marriage, Footnote and the more recent Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer) and his younger wife Dafna (Sarah Adler of Tsili).
Dafna faints and is put under sedation, while Michael is in shock. He paces like a caged animal around their stylish modern apartment, which he, an architect, has probably designed. In extreme close-ups that detach him from his familiar surroundings, he struggles to wrap his mind around what's happening, the well-meaning but invasive soldiers, the family members hovering around him. He kicks the dog, then locks himself in the bathroom to force himself to feel his pain. Oppressive overhead shots nail him to the floor. His grief becomes explosive as he begins to suspect they're hiding something from him; maybe there's nothing left of his son's body.
Suddenly, 45 minutes into the film, the film's perspective shifts to a remote border patrol, where four young Israeli soldiers — among them, Jonathan Feldman, played by Yonatan Shiray — man a checkpoint in the middle of the desert. If the first part was shot like sci-fi on some alien world, these scenes are sheer surrealism. At long intervals, the soldiers on duty raise the bar to let a lone camel walk through. A few Palestinians sometimes pass by on their way to a wedding or on an errand. Sometimes the boys let them go after checking their papers, and sometimes they humiliate them. It's a way like any other to fight off boredom in a god-forsaken spot. Inevitably, the audience shares some of their ennui.
Once again, Maoz chooses to foreground an in-your-face shooting style that raises questions about the soldier's surroundings, who they are, and what they're fighting for. Extreme close-ups fill the screen with mechanical objects robbed of all context. Scratchy old records play songs from long ago, turned up to ear-splitting volume, while Jonathan dances with his rifle and imagines it's a beautiful blonde.
He's a nice boy and he tells a funny-sad story his father told him about how, as a boy, he (Michael) became enamored with a pin-up model in a girlie magazine and bartered a family heirloom for it. This tale will lead, a little later, to the discovery that Jonathan is a talented cartoon artist and has immortalized the most shocking event in his life in a notebook. The irony is that no one knows what his drawings are about, and all evidence of this life-changing moment has been buried in the desert.
In the third part, reality shifts again as the film jumps ahead in time to a perplexing scene in his parents' apartment. The only thing that is clear is that something terrible has happened. The flashy residence is dirty and run-down and Michael and Dafna are fighting. Adler, who was barely present in the opener that showcased Ashkenazi's gift for intensity under pressure, now takes center stage in a gripping scene of psychological warfare that has the realism and immediacy of theater.
The film is definitely a strong experience, but putting it all together is up to the viewer. Taking a clue from the title, the characters seem to have a date with destiny because no matter what they do, they always end up in the same spot, like the forward and backward steps of the foxtrot. More compellingly, the pain of grief-stricken parents is seen as a direct result of the absurdity of warfare and the way it is waged with unready recruits.
In keeping with the film's bizarre, alienated style, cinematographer Giora Bejach makes effective use of an expressionist palette that ranges from bright, sunny desert colors to sickly green shades of mud and sleep-deprived faces.
Production companies: Spiro Films, Pola Pandora Filmproduktions, ASAP Films, KNM.
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray
Director, screenwriter: Samuel Maoz
Producers: Eitan Masuri, Jonathan Doweck, Michael Weber, Viola Fuegen, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Michel Merkt.
Director of photography: Giora Bejach
Production designer: Arad Sawat
Costume designer: Hila Bargiel
Editors: Arik Lahav Leibovich, Guy Nemesh
Music: Ophir Leibovitch, Amit Poznansky
Casting director: Chamutal Zerem
World sales: Match Factory
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)