Foxtrot (Israel, Germany, France, Switzerland)


SUNDAY 16 MAY 10.00 am
TUESDAY 19 MAY 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 112 minutes


Director Samuel Moaz’s award winning film is a searing examination of what writer Paul Auster called ‘the music of chance’.  It opens with a knock on the door and a woman knows what the arrival of Israeli soldiers means.


The violence in the Israeli movie Foxtrot starts with a tremor. The shudders begin soon after the movie does when a woman opens a door, stares into the camera and falls to the ground. Just one look and Dafna (Sarah Adler) knows the worst: The soldiers on her doorstep have come, bringing death. Her son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who’s in the army, has been killed. In a whir of motion and fatigue green, they stoop over Dafna, soothing and sedating her, then tucking her in bed. Her husband, Michael (a fantastic Lior Ashkenazi), mutely stares at this scene as if he were a bystander in his own life.

This striking opening builds into a devastating indictment of a nation, shock by shock, brutal moment by brutal moment. Meaning surfaces slowly here in details, flashes of cruelty, glimmers of apathy and a mounting sense of helplessness. First, though, there are parental tears and Dafna and Michael’s handsome, sparsely furnished apartment with its tidy bookshelves and modernist furniture. The biggest room, where Michael lingers while watching Dafna collapse has a geometrically patterned floor and is so large and precisely arranged that it suggests a showroom. At times, it also evokes a stage.

Michael initially suffers and mourns alone. His red eyes watering yet not quite spilling over, he understandably seems to be in shock. The soldiers have tended to him, too, fussing and hovering over him; in one shot, he looks up at them as if he were a child. His brother (Yehuda Almagor), comes by and begins busily arranging a memorial notice. Two women rush in as well, including Michael and Dafna’s daughter (Shira Haas). Everyone plays his or her part. The soldiers re-enter, and one comfortably settles into a chair and rather too blithely proposes funeral arrangements to Michael, sketching in every detail with the fastidious attention of a wedding planner.

The writer and director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) has an exacting eye. The framing is meticulous; soon it’s also very purposefully working your nerves. Although Michael briefly leaves to tell his mother about Jonathan, much of the movie’s first section unfolds inside the apartment. It’s a cloistered space, made more confining by the tight close-ups of Michael’s face (Mr. Ashkenazi makes mourning palpable in each twitch), his ponderous, near-somnolent movements and several overhead shots of him. These dramatically isolate him in the frame while creating an ambiguous, narratively untethered point of view, as if we were peering at him from a catwalk.

By the time the first section is over, a near-miracle has occurred. Jonathan turns out to be alive, and after his parents process the news, the story shifts to him. He’s in a remote outpost fulfilling the compulsory military service demanded of most Israelis when they turn 18. Along with three other young men, Jonathan guards a checkpoint, lowering and raising a barrier for the occasional passing car or slow-loping camel. At night, the soldiers train a harsh spotlight on passers-by and check IDs. It’s a dramatically beautiful, seemingly depopulated area, framed by distant mountains and bisected by a single lonely road that seems to stretch on forever yet also to go nowhere.

After the intense emotions and physical limitations of the apartment, the checkpoint with its wide-open vistas provides relief. For a moment, if seems as if you can breathe. The soldiers are cute, amusing and very young. They’ve settled into dull, monotonous work — raising the barrier for a camel — that can seem absurd. (What could go wrong?) But they also dance, draw, listen to music, tell stories and entertain one another. The looseness and humor of their interactions are welcome, but there are also new shivers of unease: The soldiers bunk in what looks like a repurposed, derelict shipping container. Everything is falling apart, decaying, and the container is rapidly sinking into the mud.

If that sounds like a metaphor, it most likely is. Mr. Maoz doesn’t say, at least through the dialogue. Avoiding speeches and exegesis, he writes characters that talk like ordinary people in everyday life, even as he focuses your attention on their faces, their interactions with others, how they carry themselves, how they withdraw and advance. Visually, though, Mr. Maoz leans into Expressionism. Michael and Dafna’s apartment, for instance, creates a powerful sense of a purposefully ordered world that is upended by grief; the abject decay surrounding Jonathan says something else entirely.

It’s no surprise when violence fully erupts at the checkpoint. It’s been hanging over this movie much as those carefully doting soldiers hovered over Michael and Dafna, telling them, wrongly of course, that their only son had died serving his country. Those soldiers are so good at what they do, Mr. Maoz suggests, because they have so much experience. There’s even a sense, conveyed through their practiced calm and soothing voices, that violence and grief are somehow inevitable, maybe normal. Image by image, and with invocations of history and the Holocaust, Mr. Moaz also suggests that normalising catastrophic violence — and routinising mourning — is finally little else than nihilism.

Source: Manohla Dargis 7/12/2018 ~ Edited extracts (accessed 1/4/2020).