'Foxtrot': Hot-button Israeli film masters tricky steps

Foxtrot is both popular and hotly debated in its native Israel, where it won most of the country’s top film awards yet was denounced by officials within the Netanyahu administration for its depiction of a fictionalized incident involving soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force.

To place the movie at the center of a political debate, however, is to miss just  how strange, imaginative and restless the movie is. We’re off balance starting with the opening knock on the door of an apartment, where emissaries from the IDF deliver to an Israeli couple the news that their son has been killed in the line of duty.

The first third of Foxtrot deals with their inconsolable grief, portrayed with a brutal intensity by Lior Ashkenazi as the young man’s father, and Sarah Adler as his mother. These scenes are unrelenting, and there is a harsh intimacy in the way writer-director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) lingers on exposed feelings.

There is another tone at work in these early scenes, though — a hint of the absurd. It surfaces in the rigidly institutional actions of IDF personnel assigned to assist the family, whose ragged emotions they treat as a medical condition.

The mother is sedated immediately — via hypodermic needle, administered in matter-of-fact fashion by medics. The father is told to drink plenty of fluids, and is given a watch that chimes every hour, reminding him to drink water, even if he doesn’t feel like eating (they advise him that he will not have an appetite).

An IDF cleric tells the father how the funeral service is to be arranged, suggesting the proper moment in the proceedings for “a funny story.”

Writer-director Maoz takes his own cue, abruptly abandoning the saga of the grieving parents to take us to the remote outpost where their son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has been stationed, and where we meet him, still alive, just days before tragic events are to transpire.

The desolate border crossing is like something out of Joseph Heller, or William Wharton (shades of A Midnight Clear). Bored soldiers discuss philosophy, sentries raise the gate to accommodate a passing camel, military equipment is mounted on an old ice cream truck adorned with still-visible images of a happy civilization that might as well be on a distant planet.

The soldiers bunk in a shipping container, which they deduce is sinking. They roll a tin of canned meat across the floor each night, timing the interval to measure the increasing tilt of the floor. It’s confirmed – they are sinking inexorably into a mire.

The movie has metaphors to burn, and those looking for provocative commentary will surely find it. Foxtrot, though, is a slippery thing that resists easy categorization, and will reward viewers who wait until all of its secrets have been revealed. That moment does not arrive until we return to the grieving couple, some months later, now living with an untenable mix of love and horror.

The latter may be Maoz’s real subject here: horror informed by the abiding drive within parents to guarantee the safety of their children, and a world that coldly insists they cannot.

MOVIES

Foxtrot

  • Directed by Samuel Maoz. With Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler and Yonaton Shiray. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
  • Run time: 2 hours, 25 mins.
  • Parent's guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Voorhees