Grief, anguish, boredom and callousness course through Samuel Maoz’s emotionally wrenching film, Foxtrot, which opens in Canada on March 16.
Divided into three related segments, it takes place in a high-rise condo in Tel Aviv and at a remote checkpoint in the desert. As in his previous movie, Lebanon, he presents Israel as an embattled country whose security is maintained by military means, even if haphazardly.
The very first scene is emblematic of the sacrifices expected of able-bodied Israeli men. Two soldiers knock on the door of the middle-class Feldman family. Dafna (Sarah Adler), the wife, answers. Told that her son, Jonathan, has been killed in the line of duty, she faints. As she lies on the floor, moaning, she is sedated. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), her husband, is silent as he stares straight ahead, shocked and locked in a catatonic state.
Since the birth of Israel 70 years ago, thousands of Israeli mothers and fathers have been the recipients of such appalling news. Being on an existential knife-edge, Israel pays a heavy price for statehood.
As Michael tries to comprehend and absorb his loss, one of the soldiers, soft-spoken and empathetic, offers advice and condolences. When his dog approaches, sensing that something is amiss, Michael slams his foot down on its paw in anger. As he mourns, Michael places his hand under hot running water and scalds it. A little later, a soldier who’s arranging the funeral drops by. Michael wants one last look of his son in the coffin, but he’s dissuaded from pursuing that route, causing him to think that Jonathan was blown to pieces and that bricks, rather than flesh and bone, have been placed in his casket.
Now explosively angry, Michael informs his brother, Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor), that he desires no mourners at Jonathan’s funeral. Visiting his mother, a Holocaust survivor who talks to him in German, Michael divulges the horrible news. Gripped by dementia, she doesn’t grasp the import of the moment. Back at home, Michael cries as he listens to his son’s standard telephone message.
These are powerful scenes that set the tone for much of Foxtrot, which unfolds in Hebrew.
It then takes a sharp, surrealistic turn before shifting to a military checkpoint in a desolate wilderness. The new locale is introduced by a soldier who, for no particular reason, demonstrates the Foxtrot dance to the loud beat of ballroom music. The three-step Foxtrot, freighted with symbolism here, is used by Maoz to amplify his main theme.
The four soldiers at the checkpoint are required to stop vehicles and check the documents of the drivers, all of whom appear to be Arabs. The information is stored in a data bank in a caravan decorated with the head of an attractive blonde woman. The soldier who asks for drivers’ IDs behaves robotically. Without uttering a word, he stands next to the window, waiting for a passbook to he handed to him. Inside the caravan, another soldier peers into a computer screen. When the “clear” sign appears, the driver may leave.
The first two vehicles leave the checkpoint without incident, but the occupants of the third car, a couple, are forced to wait in pouring rain before being allowed to drive away.
The soldiers are bored with their mundane assignment, judging by the dullness on their faces and the activities they partake in between vehicles pulling up at their post .
The fourth car, carrying two young couples, proves to be problematic. Everything goes smoothy until an empty soft drink or beer can falls out of the car. Mistaking it for a terrorist’s grenade, an excitable soldier opens fires, killing them in cold blood.
“The road is sterile,” a soldier reports to his commander over the telephone. The soldier seems immune to the collateral damage, but his cold reaction is misleading. All four soldiers are actually shocked by the accident. Shortly afterward, a bulldozer dumps the crumpled car into a pit, which is covered with sand. A helicopter lands and disgorges a senior army officer wearing shiny black boots. “In war, shit happens,” he says, dismissing their costly blunder and suggesting that coverups regularly occur in such situations.
In the third and final segment, where the passage of time is warped out of all proportion, Michael and Dafna engage in an intense conversation implying that their marriage has been troubled, and that they have come to terms with Jonathan’s untimely death.
Critics of Foxtrot, namely the Israeli minister of culture, have branded it as anti-Israel. She is wrong. It is critical of Israeli soldiers who are trigger happy and shoot before asking questions. And it satirizes soldiers’ funerals arranged by the Ministry of Defence. Beyond these pinpricks, this is an intensely Israeli film, suffused with sadness, that examines the traumas that afflict Israel in the seventh decade of its turbulent existence.