Among the many surprises at the 2018 Academy Awards, perhaps none were greater than the absence of Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot from the night's Best Foreign Language Film category. Considered by many a favorite to actually win the award, Maoz's film was, nonetheless, shut out from even receiving a nomination despite having picked up top prizes from the Venice Film Festival, National Board of Review and the Israeli Film Academy.
In the film, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi, Big Bad Wolves and Footnote) and Dafna (Sarah Adler, The Cakemaker and Andante) devastated when Israeli military officials arrive at their doorstep to announce the death of their son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray, A Tale of Love and Darkness) in service to his country.
Thus begins a visual and sensory adventure constructed fearlessly by Maoz, whose approach here is likely to feel sublime to some and maddening to others.
So it should be.
The vast majority of filmmakers would have been content to simply tell a story of unspeakable grief and the parents who experience it ... Maoz has never been content to exist within the majority and one can't help but think that the filmmaker was more than content to compromise any critical recognition in the name of artistic and thematic integrity.
Foxtrot is told in three parts, each so distinct as if to practically be a film unto itself. Stylistically and tonally separate, these three parts can, if you're not truly staying with the film, present with a jarring dissonance that makes Foxtrot look and feel disjointed. If, however, you're immersing yourself in the film's different worlds then you'll undoubtedly be able to embrace just how concretely the three separate worlds are irrevocably connected.
Within the film's first minute, Israeli soldiers have arrived at Michael and Dafna's door, the opening of which is immediately met by Dafna's knowing collapse into the kind of paralyzing grief that needn't have words. If you're from a military family, you know in an instant what that presence at your door means and it forever changes your life. The soldiers immediately sedate Dafna, even before saying a word to Michael, a decision that leaves Dafna absenet from that which follows and leaves a post-traumatic Michael alone in his grief and rage until his older brother, Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor), arrives and at least momentarily tries to take control of it all before he himself disappearing into his own world.
This opening section of Foxtrot is difficult to watch and oppressive in its presentation with D.P. Giora Bejach's camera shoots these scenes with intense, intimidating close-ups and a patient sense of stillness that is uncomfortable and intentionally stiff and fierce in its impact. Arad Sawat's production design is a key player here. Watch the way that Sawat's tempered glass doors send everything askew as if the entire scene were shot using funhouse mirrors rendering the scene's emotional resonance unstable and wildly varying.
When Foxtrot transitions into its second section, the focus shifts to Jonathan, though Maoz never really lets us know if this is a retrospective scene or some other sort of altered universe. Jonathan is alone at a desolate Northern outpost with three other soldiers; they are guarding god knows what. These scenes are surrealistic in presentation, the intense loneliness and boredom of life at this outpost leading to young men doing most anything to relieve their boredom from late night listenings to Renzo Cesana’s “Walk the Lonesome Night" to the kind of immature, faux authority-fueled humiliations of passing Arab travelers that we read about on the internet and think to ourselves "What an awful way to live," then we go back to the latest Kardashian story or reading about who Donald Trump is mad at now.
It's so normal, but it's not normal and Maoz never lets us forget about the bigger picture.
The final section in Foxtrot weaves together these two world in a way that is impenetrably stifling and possessing of such a sense of finality that one understands that Maoz's film is about much more than complicated grief and we get a glimpse into why Israeli leadership resisted this film, at times fiercely. Foxtrot is quietly fierce.
There is a bridge between past and present that I dare not discuss in detail, but when it finally begins to wash over you in relentless waves you simply can't help but feel emotionally suffocated by it. It is a bridge that Maoz builds intentionally and with such remarkable precision that you can't help but feel like you've just watched a master filmmaker at work. Foxtrot is a film that some will say is too slow, too boring and too much not about anything.
In reality, Foxtrot is about everything that truly matters.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic