“Foxtrot” is a mordant allegory of military service, generational guilt and the wrenching grief of losing a child, an Israeli drama that could have been dreamed up by Samuel Beckett.
A tale told in three acts connected by the dance and the military communications abbreviation for the letter F — “Foxtrot” is a critically-hailed, governmentally-condemned movie whose portrait of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is as unflattering at any picture to ever come out of that country.
In Samuel Maoz’s film, that harsh judgment is first encased in a velvet glove. Soldiers knock on an affluent family’s door. The wife (Sarah Adler) faints, but there’s a team of three seemingly prepared angels of death, messengers ready to catch her before she hits the floor, to sedate her and get straight to the business of calming her husband.
Their son is dead.
The great Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi (“Big Bad Wolves,””Footnote”) is Michael, a man numbed by shock. The soldiers talk about how they’ll take care of everything. The funeral procession will begin at 1, the cortege will arrive at the cemetery at 1:40, the rabbi “tear your shirt,” you the father will read “the second mourner’s kaddish.”
You don’t have to learn the son was from a family of atheists to be chilled by the theocratic efficiency, the state’s imposition of its will upon this singularly horrific event in a family’s life. They even take Michael’s phone to set it to remind him to “drink plenty of water.”
Michael? He’s stunned into silence. The rabbinical “funeral officer” suggests an anecdote might be nice for the funeral.
“You know, a little smile can help you cope.”
As Michael wanders, alone, to tell his demented mother the news and then weep in solitude in the bathroom, we see the utterly deflating nature of grief. He is gutted.
And then, he is enraged. He’s just irked that the funeral officer doesn’t want him to see the body. Just wait until the news arrives that, well shoot, they mixed up their Jonathan Feldmans. His son isn’t dead after all.
His family cannot contain his fury. The Army can’t either.
That’s when writer-director Maoz (the suburb lost tank crew thriller “Lebanon” was his) changes point of view, and we visit the remote outpost where bored would-be artist Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) guards a checkpoint.
The five soldiers there live in a shipping container that is slowly sinking into the mud. Quagmire symbolism was rarely so overt.
They defend a derelict van, which holds their communications, a gutted water tower and a single-pole gate which they raise, every so often, to let camels pass through.
Palestinians driving this way? They’re for the young men to silently search, intimidate and humiliate — standing in the rain with their hands up (in formal wear).
There’s a touch of “Waiting for Godot” in these lost souls, doing a dirty job in a muddy place named “Foxtrot.” They swap anecdotes, demonstrate (not really) the dance that their checkpoint is named for and seem to regard the whole affair as a prison sentence, a form of purgatory or at least bad karma.
Maoz’s film, in Hebrew and German with English subtitles, paints a portrait of a perpetual state of “war,” and the bureaucracy that comes along with that. But as it shifts back and forth between checkpoint and a family back home in crisis, between harrowing arguments and animated (graphic novel-style) pieces of family lore, we see a present cursed by a past and the charges leveled by one spouse upon another when tragedy strikes.
It’s a somber film with flashes of wit, with funereal pacing and long, poignant close-ups that let the players — especially Ashkenazi and Adler — let us see there’s more than what we see on the surface, just with a look.
And it’s a lacerating backhanded compliment at the military theocracy that may look like a comforting nanny state but which is really most interested in control — of occupied people, of the occupying troops, their families’ grief and the way all this is presented to the world.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content including graphic images, and brief drug use
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonaton Shiray
Credits: Written and directed by Samuel Maoz. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:48