Samuel Maoz's gorgeous and tragic Foxtrot poses the question, what happens to a society when it considers itself to be under siege for generations?
The film introduces us to Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler), an affluent Israeli couple who have just been informed by the military that their son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), has been killed in the line of duty. The film starts slow, taking in every painful detail of the family coping with Jonathan's death, from Michael's secret cruelty to a pet dog to the inept military personnel who arrive at the door, treating their son's death like a bureaucratic problem at worst, a heroic act of martyrdom at best.
The film is masterfully if elliptically narrated and exquisitely shot by Giora Bejach. It sweeps quietly through the structuring paradoxes of contemporary Israel. For example, in the account of Michael's cool relationship to his Holocaust-survivor mother, who is looked after by an African migrant at an elder-care facility, we sharply sense both the insistent memory of historical trauma and the desire to forget the suffering of those who lived it.
Jonathan's time in the desert is the most affecting illustration of these troubling paradoxes in a country that has deprived Palestinians of freedom of movement and basic livelihood yet abides in all-consuming fear of its subalterns. Officers sit interminably around a checkpoint, waiting for Palestinian passports to check. As a succession of both terrified and annoyed Palestinians drive through the blockade, nothing ever seems to happen, but Jonathan's fellow officers are wracked by paranoia and sadism.
Bejach's camera is particularly effective in these scenes, painstakingly gliding over the soldiers' living quarters in close-up crane shots until the boredom and filth they live in starts to feel claustrophobic and unbearable. When a lone car and its hapless passengers are flooded with the light of the checkpoint in the middle of the pitch-black desert, as if they were under a spotlight on a stage, the absurdity of the scenario is heightened.
In a time when many films seem to be overwhelmed by the basic task of telling a story, Foxtrot exemplifies style, pacing, and, most important, depth of feeling. As Michael, Ashkenazi is by turns wounded, cruel, loving, and wry. As Dafna, Adler is steely and tender. Together they struggle with Michael's mis- takes and his inherited trauma. They mourn not only for their son and for themselves, but for history and the bodies left in its wake.
It's a critique of war and occupation as resounding and elegiac as we could ask of commercial cinema.
Update: The film's local opening was pushed back to Friday, April 20 after this piece went to press.