In the 21st century, Israel’s national cinema has been ripe with absurd comedies (like Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated Footnote) and thoughtful meditations on military mores (the similarly awarded Waltz with Bashir).
But few dramas have managed to be so emphatically about the Israeli condition – more specifically, the experience of living in a state of perpetual war – as Foxtrot, a bold and intricate drama opening in select Canadian cinemas this March.
Art-house devotees may remember writer/director Samuel Maoz for Lebanon, a stripped-down indictment of Israel’s actions during the Lebanon War set entirely within the confines of a tank.
That film, released in Canada in 2010, won the top prize at the Venice film festival. It marked an auspicious start for Maoz; nevertheless, he moves leaps and bounds beyond Lebanon’s gimmickry for something poignant and grimly funny.
Foxtrot is a triptych, its three segments capturing the bizarre nature of life in the Israeli military.
In its first and final thirds, set in a spacious Tel Aviv apartment, architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler) grapple with the sudden news that their son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), has died.
The middle section of the film traverses to Jonathan’s final days, where he and three other young soldiers have to deal with crippling boredom as they guard a roadblock in northern Israel.
The scenes at Michael and Daphna’s apartment are sometimes brutal to endure, as the grieving parents have little time and space to navigate their feelings before state representatives arrive to make funeral arrangements.
Nevertheless, Maoz deftly brings dark comedy into the proceedings. Ashkenazi’s intense performance as the numbed father is mesmerizing, but the touches of levity brought to these sequences – a beeping mobile phone, a bewildering statement from a military official – create an odd, off-kilter mood.
One of those ridiculous exchanges includes a funeral arranger wishing to Michael that he knows no more grief. You cannot help but shake your head with exasperation.
Meanwhile, out in the muddy Israeli desert, with a troupe of weary soldiers going through the motions, there is more room for sardonic humour. The young men likely see fewer Arabs crossing their path than camels, whose slow wandering into the frame brings a delightful touch to the heavy subject matter.
As the young men ponder their fates, they bond over vulgar family stories and random moments of dancing. (The title is not just a reference to the military term, but the flowing dance.) Meanwhile, Jonathan is nervous that the container where the soldiers sleep is slowly sinking into the mud.
An ideal audience would walk into Foxtrot knowing little about the film’s formal ambitions and narrative turns. Just as one’s life at war can change instantaneously, Maoz’s film has some startling plot developments.
However, some knowledge of the comic relief should be useful to moviegoers; as the narrative moves to some devastating places, audiences should not be afraid to laugh at the unexpected moments of levity. (At the film’s TIFF premiere, it took the hundreds of festival-goers about half an hour to embrace these comic digressions.)
One should also know that Foxtrot has already generated controversy in Israel. After winning best picture at the Ophirs, the country’s equivalent to the Oscars, the film was automatically ensured it would be Israel’s entry for the foreign language film category for the Academy Awards. (Although it made the shortlist of nine, it did not make the final nominee list earlier this year.)
However, Israel’s Culture Minister and a former IDF spokesperson, Miri Regev, denounced Foxtrot on Israeli television – despite admitting she had not seen the film – for showing the country’s military forces in an unfavourable light.
Beyond its power as a dark comedy and chamber drama, Foxtrot also blends elements of other genres and filmmaking styles – which I will not spoil here – to enrich and complicate what may have been a too-straightforward story about loss.
Foxtrot is not a fast-paced film, but it makes compelling drama out of tedium and paralyzing grief. Maoz, working again with Lebanon cinematographer Giora Bejach, knows how to capture the same few locations from striking angles.
The nuanced performances, layered themes, and fascinating story developments should give moviegoers much to ponder. As the characters have the space to think about the toll of war, conflict, and death, so does the audience.
Foxtrot opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, March 16, and in Vancouver and Montreal on March 23. It should expand throughout Canada during the early spring.