Controversial ‘Foxtrot’ is a taut drama about soldiers, war

From left, Gefen Barkai, Shaul Amir, Dekel Adin and Yonatan Shiray in ‘Foxtrot.’ Photo: Giora Bejach/Sony Pictures Classics

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s gripping film “Foxtrot” opens with a scene that parents of soldiers anywhere dread: a knock on the door by military personnel bearing news that their child is dead. For one Israeli couple, that knock leads to not just grief but revelations of secrets, guilt and punishment for past sins, all set against the absurdities of war. 

Searing, haunting and artistically stunning, “Foxtrot” is a powerful drama. Written and directed by Maoz (“Lebanon”), it has sparked admiration as well as controversy in Israel. Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev has said the film, which includes a scene in which soldiers commit and try to cover up the killing of a family, attempts to “undermine” Israel and its soldiers’ morality. She has vowed not to give state funding for the film and other films like it, which she termed “enemy propaganda.”

“Foxtrot” was the winner of multiple Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars) and the winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It was Israel’s submission for the Oscars this year but failed to win a nomination for best foreign language film. 

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When Dafna Feldmann (Sarah Adler) opens the door of her apartment, she blinks, then faints. Next, we see what she saw, a small group of Israeli soldiers at her door. As the soldiers tenderly care for her, carry her to her room and administer a sedative, her husband, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), looks on in a mix of shock and fear. He is left alone to receive the bad news she had guessed: their soldier son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) had been killed. 

As the soldiers tell Michael in soothing tones that they will handle all the funeral arrangements, he listens in silence. Emotions play  across his face: fear, shock, pain, even a childlike pleading. Soon, Michael’s brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) arrives, then Dafna’s sister (Ilia Grosz). Irritated, Michael insists he does not want to see anyone. However, he leaves to tell his mother (Karin Ugowski), who is in a mental hospital, what has happened, but she does not comprehend. Another soldier arrives to discuss details of the already-planned funeral, but when Michael asks to see his son’s body, the soldier hesitates and the father becomes agitated. 

Ashkenazi, who recently appeared in “7 Days in Entebbe,” delivers a tour-de-force performance as Michael Feldman, the character at the center of this moving, stylish film. Ashkenazi wins our sympathy for the grieving father, but little details reveal a darker side to his character. 

The film suddenly switches location, time and tone, trading the grays and closed-in geometric style of the parents’ luxury modern apartment for the big vistas and color-drenched squalor of the remote border crossing where Jonathan is stationed, a location code named Foxtrot.

Of course, foxtrot is also a dance, which the characters allude to and demonstrate more than once. The first time serves as a comic introduction to the soldiers serving with Jonathan. Late in the film, Michael describes it as a dance where “no matter where you go, you end up where you started.” 

With the location change, the film’s tone shifts from drama to absurdist comedy. Jonathan and the other young soldiers are endearingly likable. Absurd or tragicomic things occur as the soldiers go through the routine of their day. They talk, dance, play music, tell stories and just pass the time. But the threat of violence and death is ever-present and eventually it erupts.

“Foxtrot” offers a critique of war and the military. One scene is particularly troubling: Israel Defense Forces soldiers kill a family in their car and then cover up the killing. Ashkenazi has defended the film, telling JTA that the film is an “allegorical tale” and does not seriously claim that the IDF covers up civilian deaths.

Maoz also touches on other subjects: the Shoah, family, tradition, religion, secrets, guilt, sin and punishment. Whether it is chance, fate or God at work, the director leaves for the audience to decide.

The film is brilliantly directed, with an atmospheric narrative filled with visual metaphors and built around complicated characters and raw emotions. The acting is superb, and the film is visually striking, both in photographic style and art direction. 

Cinematographer Giora Bejach often presents tight close-ups and point-of-view shots that leave us wondering what is out of view. Overhead shots give the characters a sense of powerlessness. On the other hand, Bejach’s camera moves over the clutter in the soldiers’  outpost, giving the dingy, random objects a certain strange beauty.

Strong direction, a striking visual style, well-structured narrative, excellent acting, strong storytelling and a thought-provoking message make “Foxtrot” a film worth watching.