The titular dance, as is explained in a scene from Samuel Maoz’s haunting “Foxtrot,” brings one back to the very position where you began, which describes the sad symmetry in the film, a tragicomic critique of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, which, while putting the lives of both of victims and victimizers at risk, creates a morally bankrupt society.
The film falls into three distinct segments. In the first, well-to-do couple Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are informed by a somber IDF officer that their son Jonathan, who is serving his required tour, has been killed in action. Dafna collapses and is heavily sedated; Michael goes through a paroxysm of grief, not ameliorated by the arrival of his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) and a military rabbi (Itamar Rothschild) who provides details of the planned funeral, or by a visit to his institutionalized mother (Karin Ugowski) to tell her of her grandson’s death. This harrowing portion of the film ends with a shocking revelation that only increases the family’s anger.
Suddenly the focus shifts to Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who is part of a four-man detachment manning a lonely roadblock in a remote area. They raise the crossbar occasionally for camels lumbering by, and even more rarely for cars after they’ve searched them and—in some cases—humiliated the passengers. Their main preoccupation, it seems, consists of estimating how quickly their metal sleeping shed is sinking into the mud by rolling cans of the potted meat they eat down the incline of the floor. Then a tragedy occurs, and a military cover-up is begun.
The third section takes us back to Michael and Dafna, who have separated over a dispute that will only gradually be revealed. He approaches her to seek a reconciliation; she responds by sharing a cake she’s baked; they also share a reefer, and then greet their daughter, who notes how close and happy they seem. We then return to see the outcome of the tragedy at Jonathan’s checkpoint.
The foregoing précis has deliberately omitted several twists that occur in “Foxtrot,” like the moves of the dance along the way to its final placement exactly where it started. The structure of the film mimics that structure, but in unexpected ways. The changes are also reflected in the different styles Maoz and his cinematographer Giora Bejach adopt for the three segments. The first part is presented in stark, intense fashion as the devastating news sinks in and the family members react in understandably ferocious ways. The checkpoint portion is portrayed in a weird, hallucinatory perspective that emphasizes the otherworldly character of the landscape and the little cruelties that arise as the tiny squadron goes throughout the paces of their assignment while their boredom and angst deepen.
The final segment lurches back into realism, but one touched with an aching sense of sadness and regret, as well as a degree of pain that can barely be articulated. The last-minute reveal comes as a punch to the stomach, and feels exactly right.
The performances are unerring, with Ashkenazi—recently seen as Itzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe”—the anchor as the distraught, furious father. Adler seconds him as Dafna, running the gamut of emotions from unfathomable grief to unexpected joy and finally resignation. Shiray’s assignment is perhaps the most difficult of all; he has to present an almost blank face as a man benumbed by what his government compels him to do. He succeeds by virtually disappearing into a semi-awake state, presenting a portrait of a sleepwalking ghost of a human being. The remainder of the cast provides able support, with Ugowski creating an unforgettable cameo as Michael’s hard but fragile mother.
“Foxtrot” is a complex, challenging film that uses a singular tragedy to illuminate the dark implications of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, for both sides.