(MA) Selected cinemas (108 minutes)
In the 1920s and 30s, a number of directors had first-hand experience of war – such as Jean Renoir, wounded in the leg on the western front in 1915. There were many more after the Second World War (John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, Sam Fuller) and one or two from Vietnam (Oliver Stone).
In the new century, very few directors have had such an experience – and you can tell that from the way movies about war have become less credible and, even worse, more like computer games. If a film makes war seem like fun, you can pretty much know the director has never been near one.
Samuel Maoz is an exception. He served in the Israeli Defence Force in 1982 during the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. Its clear that it was a shattering experience. His first feature, Lebanon, re-created the life of a tank crew on active duty. The whole film was set inside the tank, which was both technically daring and completely terrifying.
Foxtrot is a different kind of movie, but just as scarifying. It steps back to dramatise what its like for the family of an Israeli soldier when they receive news that he has been killed. Thats the first act. The second act takes place in the desert, where a group of young IDF soldiers man a lonely checkpoint. A third act returns to the family, now in post-traumatic disarray.
It might have been possible for someone who had not been to war to make this movie, but I doubt it. The intensity of emotion – especially in the obsessive parsing of the grief of the parents, Michael and Dafna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) – goes beyond what we might normally expect. Indeed, the movie functions as evidence of Maozs own level of post-traumatic stress. Its art made from pain, perhaps his form of self-therapy but no less powerful for that.
Foxtrot has been hugely controversial in Israel, but thats as it should be. The countrys Minister for Culture, Miri Regev, condemned it as giving comfort to Israels enemies, after it won the jury prize at Venice last year. She had not yet seen it.
The right in Israel objected to the films depiction of Israeli soldiers covering up evidence of a killing. It is very clear in the movie that the incident is an accident but that the cover-up is deliberate and orchestrated from higher up. Clearly, that part rankled the country's leadership – perhaps more than the film's depiction of five underused and bored soldiers quietly going insane in the desert.
Its art made from pain, perhaps his form of self-therapy but no less powerful for that.
One of these soldiers is Jonathon (Yonaton Shiray), the son of Michael and Dafna. In one of the films most surreal moments, Jonathon dances with his rifle as if its a woman, twirling and wooing her on the road, making his comrades laugh. The dance is poignant and silly, and shot in such a way as to make us sense the irony. Hes just a kid, horsing around, trying to entertain his pals and relieve some tension; hes also a bulwark, a defender of the nation.
The scene works also as a metaphor for the Israeli predicament, having to defend an outpost where the main traffic is a single camel that passes each day along the road by itself. Maozs point, I am guessing, is not that they should not defend it or give it to the Palestinians, but that a permanent state of war has consequences for the national psyche. The title also refers to a dance – one in which the dancer takes a step forward, backward, to the side and ends up back where he started. Draw your own conclusions.
Foxtrot is nothing if not ambitious, challenging and, at times, difficult. The father Michael is unsympathetic – even to the point of kicking the family dog, which makes his grief seem even more acute. Maoz does not take the obvious path in anything, whether it's characterisation or the way he uses the camera. The effect is to put us off balance. The combination of tension and humour in act two, the desert outpost, takes that even further. Its an extraordinary film, far from easy, ultimately thoughtful and hard to forget.
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