In the history of cinema, there’s never been a shortage of films addressing the meaningless waste of life that war entails. But few films capture the utter absurdity of perpetual conflict and the human cost it incurs quite like Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot. Had M.A.S.H. been directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet rather than Robert Altman and set in Israel rather than Korea, it might look something like this bizarre little allegory. A story that vacillates between extremely sly black comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy, Foxtrot balances its bleak subject with an unerring directorial style that provides a pitch-perfect juxtaposition between significance and nihilism.
There’s a lot going on here, but the film never loses its way among its heavy themes and heady message. Maoz sets up a tragicomedy of errors, in which a wealthy Israeli family learns that their son has been killed during his compulsory military service, only to find shortly thereafter that the notification has been a case of mistaken identity. But Maoz takes his narrative a step further, employing a circular story structure and a carefully parsed series of character developments that lead Foxtrot into some particularly compelling territory.
Like the titular dance that is referenced several times in the film, Foxtrot locks its audience into a dialectical box step with no end and little discernible purpose, a metaphor for the ceaseless Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which its characters are obligatorily engaged. Moaz never belabors his conceit, avoiding heavy-handed sermonizing about the societal ills of arming what amount to children and tasking them with fighting a perpetual war, instead focusing on the arbitrariness of the scars, both physical and emotional, inevitably imparted by such a scenario. The family’s anguish over the potential loss of their only son feels real — and their rage is personal, not political.
Maoz has a keen eye for detail, and his directorial style elevates his already exceptionally crafted script. Foxtrot’s tripartite story structure slowly reveals a thematic mirroring between father Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), one rendered almost unfathomably cruel by the film’s emotional climax. God’s-eye-view camera angles put the audience directly in the heads of both Jonathan and Michael, but rather than evoking a spiritual context, these shots feel like the vantage point of an unfeeling demiurge, the perspective of a fatalistic force impelling unavoidable tragedy that conveys the inner landscape of this decidedly secular family in an overtly religious society. The claustrophobic composition of the first and third acts, taking place in the family’s luxurious but small apartment, contrast harshly with the vast openness of Jonathan’s posting at a remote desert checkpoint where his unit is bivouacked in a slowly sinking shipping container. Maoz displays a clear mastery of visual metaphor, and his every shot carries a deeper meaning.
In tackling a hot-button political issue from a decidedly human — and bleakly humanistic — level, Maoz has contributed a nuanced and thought-provoking statement to a convoluted geopolitical quagmire. If there’s little cause for optimism to be found in Foxtrot, that is clearly by design. In Maoz’s worldview, the sins of the father inexorably become the responsibility of the son, and like the eternal repetition of a tragic two-step, this cycle of penance has no end in sight. It’s not exactly an uplifting sentiment, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Hebrew with English subtitles. Rated R for some sexual content including graphic images, and brief drug use.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.