Grief is an inescapable condition, and sorrow a never-ending facet of life, in Foxtrot. As such, the filmIsraels submission for this years Best Foreign Film Oscararrives at a depressingly timely moment, with President Donald Trump igniting another round of Middle East discord via his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital. Far more accomplished than his prior fictional effort, 2009s life-inside-a-wartime tank saga Lebanon, writer/director Samuel Maozs drama is a haunting meditation on pain, and the inability to truly break free from its graspa despondent perspective conveyed by this wrenching story of a family ravaged by both their own past offenses and the cruel hand of fate.
Foxtrot is encased in a fatalistic shroud, and the source of that doom is on high, as Maozs protracted overhead camera shots assume the POV of a silent, indifferent God. If, as suggested, Hes watching some of his people as they grapple with circumstances almost too awful to bear, He certainly shows no inclination to intervene, thus leaving them to cope with heavy hearts and guilty consciences on their own. Its an onerous task, and one set before architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler) when, while at their Tel Aviv home, theyre visited by two soldiers. Upon opening the door to greet these men, Daphna faints and falls into convulsions, leaving Michael stranded alone in a distant doorway, a look of stunned horror on his face. As they both invariably know, this military appearance can mean only one thing: their soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has been killed in the line of duty.
In a sustained close-up of agonized numbness, Michael listens as the men explain the protocol demanded by the situation, including the participation of a funeral officer to arrange services, and Michaels need to keep drinking water to stay hydrateda chore for which they set an hourly alarm on his phone. All the while, Michaels vacant look conveys the dawning abyss opening up before his very eyes. Ashkenazi expresses the mournful panic and hollow rage beginning to flower in Michaels head and heart with an open-faced rawness thats heartbreaking.
And what follows is ugliness of a varied sort, from Michael viciously kicking his dog (only to later silently apologize), to conversations with his gratingly helpful brother (Yehuda Almagor) and memory-deficient mother (Karin Ugowski), to a sit-down with the aforementioned funeral specialist, whonot capable of reading the individual with whom hes speakingsuggests that Michael do something upbeat at the ceremony, like have someone read a poem or play some guitar.
Shock turns to sadness, and next to rage when [minor spoilers follow] the soldiers return to inform the Feldmans that Jonathan is, in fact, not deadit was another soldier with the same name who actually perished. Given that he already suspected something was amiss after being denied the chance to see his sons body, this news infuriates Michael, despite Daphnas best attempts to soothe him. Then, no sooner has this volatile incident subsided than Foxtrot cuts to the remote middle-of-nowhere checkpoint being manned by Jonathan and his three comrades. Its a desolate locale, where a spotlight sits in a watchtower, radio equipment is housed in a broken-down van decorated with an illustrated profile of a beautiful woman, and the roadblock is a single gate raised mainly to allow the back-and-forth passage of a camel. Across a disgusting pond sits a large metal container that serves as the quartets home, although even more troublesome than the grimy nature of these accommodations is the fact that, as a ball rolling across their floor indicates, their residence is tiltingand sinkinginto the ground.
If Michael and Daphna are wracked with heartache born from loss (and confusion, and perceived deception), Jonathan and his comrades are burdened by a more existential sort of malaise. Theirs is a dreamlike ennui wrought from being marooned in a wasteland carrying out a largely pointless assignment and otherwise spending time listening to heavy metal, eating potted meat (boiled, disgustingly, on makeshift burners), and, for Jonathan, scribbling illustrations in a notebook. One of those drawings, of a buxom blonde sexpot with black Xs taped over her nipples, leads to a story from Jonathan about a Hebrew bible held onto by his grandmother during the Holocaust, and his father Michaels decision to trade that precious family heirloomwhich his mom intended to pass onto him when he became a soldierfor a porno mag featuring a woman similar to the one Jonathan has sketched.
That tale of inheritance, betrayal and regret ends, deliberately, without mention of how Michaels mother felt about his deed. Yet a later animated sequence corrects that omission, while also using a fantastical flourishMichaels face forever emblazoned with the beautys nipple-covering black Xto tap into the shame and anguish lurking just beneath Michaels, and everyone elses, surface. When a group of untested Israeli soldiers accidentally kill a group of innocent Palestinians at a checkpointand then their IDF superior covers it upMaoz handles that moral descent with aplomb, using oppressive silence and precisely calibrated camerawork to create an atmosphere of bleak foreboding (the sequence led to the film being labeled anti-Israel by Israels controversial culture minister Miri Regev). Even when levity briefly arrives in a closing sequence between Michael and Daphnaset months laterthe scars of the past and the wounds of the present feel like one and the same: bloody, distressing, and permanent.
As a study of grief, Foxtrot is an arduous cinematic experience, its grimness infesting every inch of its precisely manicured frameincluding whenever a painting of a black vortex-like design (evoking a void from which one might never escape) is spied in the Feldmans home. Nonetheless, even in the face of so much misery, Maozs film finds hope, however modest and fleeting, in the notion that, if life is akin to a foxtrot dancei.e. always returning people to the place they beganthe despondent and estranged might still find solace from the understanding that such corrosive cycles can be broken by a measure of shared compassion. And, perhaps also, by taking a few tokes from a hard-earned (and well-rolled) joint.