In “Foxtrot,” an intriguing jewel box of a film, Israeli writer-director Samuel Maoz creates an elegant allegory of self-examination and the unmaking of myth, employing symbolism, theatricality and misdirection to question some of the most reassuring stories his home country tells itself.
With a fluent mix of irony and sincerity, Maoz interrogates – gently, but with unwavering insistence – the rituals of a country mired in the moral contradictions of occupation and its own defensive crouch. As the title suggests, the movie's characters are caught up in a dance only partially of their own making, doomed to repeat steps they didn't choose and that get them precisely nowhere.
As “Foxtrot” opens, a prosperous Tel Aviv architect named Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler), are visited by two soldiers who tell them their son Jonathan has been killed. For the next several minutes, we bear intimate witness as Michael numbly answers questions and submits to the ministrations of his visitors, who express a notable interest in his water intake.
At first Michael listens quietly as the soldiers explain the nuts and bolts of the funeral, a piece of regimented stagecraft more rooted in formulaic hagiography than genuine remembrance. In time, his glazed confusion gives way to anger when he realizes that no one can tell him precisely where, how and why his son died.
Relayed in a series of quiet, intensely focused scenes that seemingly play out in real time, this initial sequence – step one? – gives “Foxtrot” firm grounding both in realism and stylized metaphor. It quickly becomes clear that Maoz, who favors occasional but pointedly Godlike overhead shots, isn't afraid to give his themes added visual oomph in terms of design and framing. From the boxlike structure of the Feldmans' prosperous apartment to the motif of nesting boxes that repeats from hallway to floor tile to the art on the walls, his characters are unmistakably trapped, whether within past guilt or reflexive notions of nationalism and honor.
These ideas come to a head in “Foxtrot's” next section, where we meet the young Jonathan Feldman in the days leading up to the announcement of his death. Assigned to a desolate outpost kitted out with antique computers and decades' worth of cigarette butts, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) and his fellow soldiers while away the time playing first-person shooter games, telling stories and inspecting the cars of Palestinian travelers cautiously encountering yet another irritating – or potentially deadly – checkpoint.
It's during this sequence that “Foxtrot” engages in alternately amusing and sobering flights of absurdism, whether in the form of an impromptu pas de deux with a machine gun, the sight of a camel making its languorous way under a bobbing guardrail or the faded painting on the side of the abandoned ice cream truck that serves as the soldiers' home base, its decaying mural of a smiling blond woman a frayed index of compromised values on a much larger scale. (Members of the Israeli government have criticized “Foxtrot” for its unfavorable depiction of the Israeli military and its treatment of Arab citizens.) This is a part of the world, Maoz tells us, where a fleeting moment of exquisite connection can, with the wrong timing, give way to similarly brief but far more senseless carnage.
There's lots of fainting in “Foxtrot,” which is appropriate for a film in which twists and turns abound – some welcome, some tragic. Graced by superb performances, especially from Ashkenazi and Adler, this gentle but devastating portrait bursts with integrity and tough honesty, even in its most lighthearted moments.
Although Maoz seems to be too sensitive an artist to have succumbed to the fatalism he observes so thoughtfully, he still makes a convincing case, if not for hopelessness, at least for healthy pessimism. As Jonathan and his brothers in arms bivouac in an abandoned shipping container, their isolation and torpor increasingly giving way to paranoia, they play a game of rolling a can down its precariously slanted floor.
It's not a stretch to guess what the filmmaker means when one of his characters notes that sooner or later, “We'll end up sinking completely.”