The worst possible thing that can happen to the parents of a child in the army is to see a cadre of army officers, about to knock on their door or ring their doorbell.
Shmuel Maoz’s brilliant Israeli film, “Foxtrot,” begins in this way, as we arrive, on the backs of these carriers of dreadful news, at an Israeli couple’s apartment. Most Americans can relate to this only from a handful of films or television shows that show such scenarios, but for Israelis, tragically, it not such a farfetched reality. Over the years, it has been all too common. Most Israelis know firsthand someone who died during a terrorist attack or military service.
In “Foxtrot,” Michael and Dafna open the door to their home. Immediately, without a word uttered, they understand why these people are there. Dafna faints and the media immediately drugs her and takes her away to her room. Over the next several minutes, in what seems an infinite amount of time, we watch Michael struggling with his grief. Writer-director Maoz does not spare us for one moment, as Michael, in extreme close-up and presented from a multitude of camera angles, tries to make sense of the loss of a child.
Maoz wants us to delve into the psyche of this wounded parent, a child of Holocaust survivors, who has grown up in the pressure cooker we know as Israel. In his childhood, Michael learned early on that he could not complain, that he had to repress his emotions, because his parents’ life had been hell and he had it so much better. Compounding this intergenerational transmission of suffering and anxiety, he had fought in wars, experienced the horrors of those encounters, and had his own post-traumatic stress disorder. With this tumultuous history, who can face the worst of all life horrors, the loss of a child?
I had an opportunity to talk to Shmuel Maoz at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The 55-year-old director had served in I.D.F.’s Tank Corps during the First Lebanon War. Shortly after the hostilities began, his commander ordered him to fire on a suspicious vehicle. The enemy in that war did not wear a uniform; it was never quite clear whether the man Maoz killed in the car was a bad guy. He has struggled with that ever since.
Then, years later, as a parent, one morning he told his eldest daughter that he no longer would pay for her to take a taxi to school when she overslept, and he sent her off to take Bus #5. Half an hour later, he learned that the bus had been a terrorist target and that dozens of riders had been killed. With the city’s cellular circuits overloaded, he waited for more than an hour for news. Then his daughter walked in the door, telling her dad that she had just missed catching that very bus. “How do I deal with such moments?” he told me. “That hour was the impetus for this film.”
It seems that with each new film, the acting of Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Michael, only gets better. Beginning with his breakout role as a young Georgian bachelor in the 2001 film “Late Marriage,” opposite the late Ronit Elkabetz, he had starred in such films as “Walk on Water,” “Footnote,” and last year’s “Norman” with Richard Gere. His acting is absolutely mesmerizing. Joining him in a standout performance is Sarah Adler as Dafna, who after waking up from her drug-induced sleep, also must contend with the harrowing news.
But this film is not just about the encounter in the apartment. There are two more acts in this classically crafted film. In Act Two, in flashback, we get to learn about Jonathan, their soldier son, and his tour of duty. We get a sense of what it is like for a soldier on a remote Israeli border to have to check passing cars, an act that could bring about his imminent death. Act Three is far more complex, as we are forced to confront a situation where issues that possibly should be out in the open are repressed and kept from being discussed and debated. In many ways, this is Maoz’s allegory, his call-out for a more open society.
“Foxtrot” is an exceptional work of art that transcends politics and psychology. Though laced with humor, not everyone will feel good watching a film that can be seen as challenging aspects of Israeli society. Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, took direct aim at the movie, which was supported in part with Israeli tax dollars. Without even seeing it, she claimed it to be offensive and denounced it as “contributing to the anti-Israel narrative.”
“Foxtrot” is a film made by an Israeli, in a society that not only allows for but actively encourages artistic expression. “Foxtrot,” the winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and Israel’s submission for the Oscar for best foreign language film, is passionate and insightful and should be a must for anyone who loves Israel. The film opens today for a brief one-week theatrical run in New York City. It should reach neighborhood theaters in late winter.
Eric Goldman teaches at Yeshiva University and is host of the new film interview program, “Jewish Cinematheque,” televised on the Jewish Broadcasting Service.