Every shot in Shmulik Maoz’s “Foxtrot” shouts the tragic cry of contemporary Israeli life: the howl of parents whose soldier son has died, the bellow of a soldier at a checkpoint, the site of the ruination of Israeli identity.
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Defying the norm of Israeli film in recent decades, which depicts the Israeli soldier as heroic sacrificial victim, Maoz, who also wrote the screenplay of “Foxtrot,” shows the destruction of the occupier’s identity as an inevitable consequence of the world of the checkpoint and the confrontation with the Palestinian civilian population. The isolation, the repetitive arbitrariness of policing at the checkpoint and the lack of purpose (“What are we fighting here for?”) are realized in the foxtrot, a dance that symbolizes the fantasy of cutting across space, but they also lead to the accidental killing of a group of young Palestinians.
At the heart of the tragic events at the checkpoint, we see Yonatan Feldman (Yonatan Shiray) relating to his fellow soldiers the bedtime story his father Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) used to tell him. The story, passed down from Michael’s own parents, was that of a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust, only to be unwittingly traded by the teenage Michael for a girlie magazine, and its character changes when it becomes a story told by the third generation of Holocaust survivors.
In a sketchbook, Yonatan draws the guilt-ridden coming-of-age story of the second generation, but mainly his own. The last sketch in the notebook is of the Palestinian girl who silently stared at him from inside a car, just before he and his fellow soldiers mistakenly shot her.
One might think the legacy of the Holocaust would be shattered in the generational shift from the story of the victim to that of the conqueror, but that is not the case. The accidental killing is covered up — literally, by a bulldozer that buries the young Palestinians’ car — but Yonatan sketches what happened, he makes the traces present. His parents, who weren’t present at the event and are given their son’s notebook after his death, don’t understand the drawing of the bulldozer lifting the Palestinian car, but we the movie audience does.
In this way, Maoz demonstrates that the purpose of films is to depict the hidden reality of the violent world of the checkpoint and to break through the ongoing denial of what the occupation is doing to the military and to society. Only movies, Maoz is telling us, reveal the truth.
The power of “Foxtrot” does not derive solely from this brilliant use of the film medium. The movie fully realizes the creative possibilities of the cinematic language in all its aspects (script, direction, artistic design, cinematography, music, sound). It offers a viewing experience that is rich, complex, funny, tragic and continually surprising. The black-and-white diamond-tile floor in the home of Michael and Dafna (Sara Adler) home takes on the dizzying feel of a collapsing world once bereavement invades their lives. The big red splotch spray-painted on the drawings on the wall in Yonatan’s room seem to foreshadow the moment when Dafna will pour alcohol into red glasses while trying to cope with the horror of her son’s death.
Moaz and cinematographer Giora Bejach (who also shot Maoz’s first film, “Lebanon”) combine high-angle shots and a camera that hovers in space, recalling director Gaspar Noe’s work in “Enter the Void,” with close-ups. Thus we switch between an impossible, nonsubjective and nontemporal perspective and a subjective one that gives rise to full empathy and identification. Maoz’s innovative use of the soundtrack reveals a world in which the soldiers don’t even speak with the Palestinians waiting at the checkpoints, since both sides are already intimately familiar with the routine of the inspection ritual.
It’s a world of silent gestures, supported by the shot of the soldiers’ shack, leaning on its side like the cabin in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” and slowly sinking into the treacherous quicksand around the checkpoint. The references to Israeli and foreign movies enhance the nuanced exposition of the changes within Israeli society. The ironic allusion in the first shot of the checkpoint to the scene in Uri Zohar’s “A Hole on the Moon” where the erection of a kiosk signifies the settling of the wilderness adds another layer to the moment when we hear Yonatan’s voicemail: “I’m in the middle of nowhere and there’s no reception, but leave me a message and I’ll get back to you one day.”
The foxtrot dance scene, also a homage to the dance-of-death scene in Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir,” ultimately becomes a symbol for running in place and going nowhere.
“No matter which way you turn in the dance, you’ll always end up at the same starting point,” the bereaved father tells his wife as he shows her the dance steps. In the shattering world of bereavement, in which the father’s shout, “I demand that you give me my son back right now!” completely shakes the viewer, Maoz is asking us to listen to the meaning of the dance steps.