Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Samuel Maoz
Written by: Samuel Maoz
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor, Noam Lugasy, Karin Ugowski
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/2/17
Opens: December 8, 2017 in NY & LA; March 2, 2018 wider
Let no one say that Israeli filmmakers hold back on portraying its citizens, particularly its soldiers, as ordinary, often scared citizens, despite that country’s success in winning five wars, capturing Eichmann, and rescuing scores of its citizens held as hostages in Uganda’s airport. Yes, Israelis can be frightened like the rest of us. Writer-director Samuel Maoz depicts that vulnerability in his only other feature-length movie “Lebanon,” taking place largely in a tank sheltering some mighty scared Israeli soldiers. Now with “Foxtrot,” Moaz pushes into surreal territory abundant with metaphors such as the very name of this film. “Foxtrot” is not only the battle name of a platoon of soldiers in a remote desert area. The foxtrot is also a simple dance that has the couple moving forward, sideways, backwards, and back to the front. Like Sisyphus trying to roll a huge rock up a hill, first succeeding only to have the boulder fall back, Israel’s political history consists of steps forward, sideways and backwards but always falling back to the place where the dance started.
There are three divisions to this feature, with one of its most baffling mysteries making sense only in the very end. In other words, watch the entire film and live with a little frustration for a while. In the first segment, two army soldiers report to the spacious, expensively furnished and book lined home of Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi), an architect, and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler). Their son Yonatan (Yonatan Shiray) is reported dead, “felled” in the army euphemism, while stationed in a desolate desert post. After Daphna faints, Michael paces about, enraged, and shaken, while his brother Avigdor (Yehida Almagor) tries unsuccessfully to comfort him. Michael is far from appeased by the attention paid to him by the soldiers, whose instructions on the funeral alternate with their advice to drink a glass of water every hour.
In the second segment Maoz’s cinematographer Giora Bejach captures the loneliness of a desert post which shows a toilet in worse shape than the one in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” where four young soldiers stop cars with traveling Arabs, vetting their ID’s with a screen that instructs “clear,” and manipulating the post that indicates the inspection stop. They raise the post to a lone camel traveling without a rider but with dignity, an animal that will assume a significant role in the third segment. To kill time, Yonatan tells his buddies stories about his childhood, stories that he has committed to paper in the form of cartoons. Being barely out of their teens, he and his buddies concentrate on his memories of a Playboy-style magazine featuring a blonde in a Marilyn Monroe pose but with X’s on the nipples. In the movie’s highlight, Yonatan turns up the music of the old records on hand, solo dancing the fastest foxtrot you can imagine to entertain the three men—none of whom appears to be older than twenty-three.
The final act finds the lad’s mother and father reminiscing but facing each other with the hostility one might expect of couple whose honeymoons are long past. Even in their home the metaphoric foxtrot takes shape, the arguments morphing into laughter as they share a joint. One step back, one to the side, forward as though nothing had changed.
This film, which is Israel’s candidate for awards consideration as best foreign movie, is essential viewing for cinephiles, though once-a-month film-goers and “tired businessmen” might be too baffled to enjoy the artistry on display. We are fortunate that whatever censorship boards to which filmmakers must present for approval interpret their role quite liberally, cutting scenes that perhaps might endanger military security but giving a free hand to cinema that is critical of Israel.
In Hebrew with English subtitles.
Unrated. 113 minutes. ©Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online