Foxtrot (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An absurd war drama dancing around pathos and humor

foxtrot01.jpgRight after the end of the first act of Israeli film “Foxtrot”, I completely caught off guard by a sudden shift in its mood and narrative. I will not go into details here for avoiding spoilers, but I can tell you instead that I instantly sensed that I was experiencing an exemplar case of masterful storytelling. Being so involved in the calm, gripping human drama of its first act, I was willing to observe what it was going to do next, and the movie did not disappoint me at all as giving me several emotionally resonating moments which lingered on my mind for a while after it was over.

After the brief opening scene which will turn out to be more meaningful later in the story, the movie puts us right into the devastating circumstance of Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler), who are notified on one day that their son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray), who has done his military service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), was killed during his duty. While Dafna is totally devastated by this sad news, Michael struggles to hold himself despite his growing anger and grief, and we subsequently get a calm but gut-wrenching scene where he attempts to control himself in a rather drastic way.

The movie calmly and closely observes the progress of this grievous situation step by step. Michael’s older brother comes to the apartment for consoling Michael and Dafna, and he busily prepares for the memorial service instead of Michael. Dafna’s sister also comes for supporting her sister and brother-in-law, but she is not much of help to Dafna as Dafna is asleep after being heavily sedated. Michael later goes to a facility for the aged where his senile mother has resided, and he tells her that her grandson died, but she does not seem to grasp the gravity of the circumstance. In case of Michael’s daughter Alma (Shira Haas), she does not reply to her father’s several urgent phone calls, and he accordingly becomes more frustrated and exasperated.

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Some time later, Michael is visited by a military chaplain, and he comes to sense something wrong as the military chaplain explains to him about his son’s funeral procedure. While neither he nor his wife is particularly religious, Michael demands that he should see his son’s body, but the military chaplain only evades his demand while not explaining why Michael is not allowed to see his son’s body.

As Michael wonders whether IDF is hiding something about his son’s death, an unexpected news comes, and Michael and Dafna’s circumstance is completely changed as a consequence. Even at that narrative point, the movie steadily maintains its detached tone as before, and you have to see for yourself how its main performers ably handle the emotional turmoil swirling around their characters while never making any misstep.

And then the movie suddenly moves onto its second act, which is set in a military checkpoint located somewhere in the northern border area of Israel. Watching a few soldier characters being stuck in the remote barren background, I could not help but think of Samuel Beckett’s famous play “Waiting for Godot”, and then I was quite amused by a cheerfully absurd moment from one of these soldier characters.

After that impressive moment, the movie throws several other absurd moments into the screen. There is a recurring moment involved with a problematic trailer where these soldier characters have stayed, and I must confess that I cringed whenever the movie showed their toilet section which is in the serious need of cleaning. While these military guys are usually bored as nothing much happens around their checkpoint, the situation becomes a bit more eventful whenever someone is about to pass through their checkpoint, and there are a number of small nice deadpan moments which are as darkly humorous as the works of Aki Kaurismäki.

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And then there comes a striking moment of unexpected tragedy, which is subsequently followed by the sad, bitter irony of the third act of the movie. There is a conversation scene as hurtful as Ingmar Bergman’s chamber drama films, and then we later get a surprisingly tender, intimate scene showing us the importance of understanding and empathy.

The movie is written and directed by Samuel Maoz, who drew my attention for the first time through his first feature film “Lebanon” (2009). That movie, which won the Golden Lion award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, was a small but intense war drama firmly focusing on a group of Israeli soldiers inside their military tank, and I was particularly impressed by its taut, economic storytelling and increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere reminiscent of “Das Boot” (1981).

Under Maoz’s skillful direction, the movie deftly dances around pathos and humor, and his main cast members are impeccable with subtle touches to notice. While Lior Ashkenazi, who was very funny in Oscar-nominated Israeli film “Footnote” (2011), brings quiet intensity to his character, Sarah Adler, who was fabulous in “The Cakemaker” (2017), is equally good as his character’s grieving wife, and several substantial supporting performers including Yonathan Shiray are also solid in their respective roles.

In conclusion, “Foxtrot”, which won the Grand Jury Prize award at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival and was selected as the Israeli entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year (it was included in the short list for the category but did not get nominated in the end), distinguishes itself via dexterous storytelling and superlative performances as well as indirect social/political messages inside its captivating war drama. The movie confirms me again that Maoz is another interesting filmmaker to watch, and I will certainly have some expectation on what will come next from him.

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