Samuel Maoz, director and scriptwriter
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi (Michael), Sarah Adler (Dafna), Yonatan Shiray (Jonathan)
Grand Jury Prize Winner, Venice Film Festival
Won eight Israeli Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director and Actor
When you dance the foxtrot, you move in a series of eight steps: forward, backward, to the right and left, finally ending up in the same position you were in at the beginning. Samuel Maoz’ current Israeli drama doesn’t exactly replicate a foxtrot but his meaning is clear: this is what is happening in his country—whatever you do, you end up in the same place.
Unlike the dance, Foxtrot, the film, offers only three stories plus a denouement, which arguably brings us back to the original situation. The first third of the drama is shot in a cold, oppressive style. A woman, Dafna Feldman, opens her apartment door, sees military police and immediately collapses. She knows what they’re there for, to announce the death of her son, who is serving his time in the army. Unlike Dafna, her husband Michael stays alert but is struck into a near comatose state by his grief. While Michael tries to cry or feel anything, his brother and sister arrive to express their emotions which only further clouds his attempts to understand what’s happened. The viewer is thrust into Michael’s anguished condition, feeling his unbearable loss when suddenly the military arrive again. They’re sorry; it seems there are two boys with the same name and it’s the other one who has died.
In the second story, we follow the nearly absurd military life of Jonathan, Dafna and Michael’s son. He’s part of a quartet of youngsters, who act as the border guards in a remote outpost on one of the endless Palestinian/Israeli policed zones. Here, Maoz’s direction moves towards the surreal as the camera watches the boys as they fantasize while dealing with their boring lives. Jonathan dances the foxtrot with his rifle. One of his mates rolls a can down the military truck, determined to prove that it is sinking into the mud. Another sets off fireworks. They all tell stories and Jonathan’s is particularly piquant about a porn magazine and an ancient Hebrew Bible. (No, I’m not going to tell it to you!) Then tragedy strikes.
In the third story, Dafna and Michael have split up. Over drinks and a shared marijuana cigarette (get used to it, they’ll be legal soon), they rake over the coals of their relationship and find each other again while dancing a foxtrot.
There’s a denouement, involving a camel, a desert road and a military truck, which only adds to the tragic-comic tone of the whole film.
Foxtrot is an artful attempt to render the emotional condition of Israel at the present time. But Maoz may have made a mistake with his protagonists. The Feldmans are too particular as people: they don’t seem like “typical” members of any society. Yet there is something appealing about them. They’re very gifted but weak; you can see that their lives have never been as successful as they should have been.
Maoz’s tonal shifts do work well. Foxtrot moves effortlessly from drama to absurdity, from brazen comedy to true tragedy. The film is blessed with two outstanding performances, from the much-lauded Lior Ashkenazi and the somewhat obscure Sarah Adler. They are wonderful as Michael and Dafna, two people destined to stay in love even when romantic delusions are gone. Foxtrot is fine fare for cinephiles who want to end up where they started: in love with art films.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.