“Foxtrot” spends its first half hour as a bleak drama about distraught parents mourning their dead son, and then it becomes something entirely different. Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s brilliant followup to his debut “Lebanon,” which took place within the confines of a tank, deals with a very different kind of confinement — being imprisoned by an ambivalent world, and forced to deal with whatever random tragedies it chooses to dish out.
Yet despite its dreary overtones, Maoz pierces his milieu with flashes of perceptive satire, an animated interlude, and a touching, romantic finale, all of which adds up to a wonderfully unexpected hodgepodge of insights into intergenerational Israeli frustrations.
But the first act belies the depth in store. Starting out as a straightforward plunge into deeply tragic events, the movie begins with middle-aged couple Michael (the ever-reliable Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler, in a fiery turn) being visited by a pair of soldiers bearing the bad news that their son has been killed in the line of duty. As Daphna collapses in shock, Michael freezes in terror, and Maoz’s camera sits close to the actor’s face for minutes on end as the soldiers inform them of military protocol.
It’s the first of many bold choices in a movie that never goes quite where you expect. At first, the movie plays out like a somber portrait of the mourning process. Michael, his eyes wide and trembling, stumbles about his apartment in a daze before going about the business of notifying his relatives. He digs through his son’s possessions until he can’t take it any longer, and in the bathroom attempting to contain his emotions, he pours scalding hot water over his hand in a desperate attempt to externalize his grief. When a rabbinical authority comes over to arrange the funeral, the conversation takes a grim turn when Michael insists on seeing his son’s body.
But the deliberate pacing of these events becomes a mere preamble for the more intriguing setting that follows. At a remote desert checkpoint, a quartet of young male soldiers spend their days checking the identification cards from the mostly Palestinian travelers who pass through the dusty gate, though more often they’re forced to lift it for stray camels. They sleep in a large shipping container that seems to be sinking diagonally into the ground, swap family stories and play video games to pass the time. Maoz explores their malaise with deadpan asides that highlight the sheer absurdity of their mission.
It would be a spoiler to explain the specific connection between the movie’s two disparate environments, but they’re beautifully complimentary in this expansive portrait of Israeli society. Like Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, Maoz unearths a kind of physical comedy from the inanity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in minimalist terms. One alternately harrowing and funny moment involves a traveler forced out of her car and forced to dump her makeup on the ground as it starts to rain. Squinting in the soldiers’ bright lights, she can’t figure out if she’s supposed to keep her hands in the air. It’s an expert blend of slapstick and discomfort that defines Maoz’s unique tone, and deepens the uneasiness of an environment in which everyone’s forced to play roles in a society that takes its discrimination for granted.
Needless to say, Maoz has a few more narrative zigzags in store, as the movie doubles back to Michael and his wife, still despondent over their son’s death and contemplating the legacy he left behind. These twists might come across as too tidy for their own good — but Maoz maintains such a riveting formalism that everything seems to fit together.
Anecdotes in one section inform events in the next, as we learn about the family history with the Holocaust and the nature of Michael’s relationship to Dafna, a woman who alternately adores and resents his impact on their rocky marriage. They’re at once symbolic of a society rife with historical contradictions, and grounded in genuine feeling.
Through meandering conversations and soulful glances, Maoz highlights the tensions between religious and secular values paired in addition to the way the tough, masculine personalities that both plague Michael and the young soldiers force them to suppress their more fragile sentiments. After a brutal, violent act at the military checkpoint, a sergeant declares, “In war, shit happens.” That’s ultimately the best justification anyone in “Foxtrot” can offer up for the pileup of circumstances strewn throughout the movie’s winding path.
Maoz compliments his unpredictable narrative with sharp, meticulous framing in every scene. The white walls of the cramped apartment lend a theatrical dimension to Michael and Dafna’s argumentative existence, as if they’re going through an unruly emotional dance they’ve done many times before. Meanwhile, the real dance of the title arrives in the middle of the desert landscape, as a bored soldier shows off his moves to a peer and Maoz turns up the music, momentarily piercing the drab setting. The scene is a masterful window into the desire to make the best of a bad situation. At the same time, the movie unfolds like a grand existential sigh, as if acknowledging that no amount of upbeat behavior can prevent the possibility that more cruel twists of fate await.
“Foxtrot” premiered at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals. It is currently seeking distribution.