If you can create three riveting, impeccable, emotionally impassioned movies, you’ve had a directing career worth celebrating. In “Foxtrot,” Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz has made his trifecta all at once and spliced them together into a magnificent, poetically fractured tryptic.
The film follows a nightmare logic that it never abandons, but it leads us down devious paths along the way. Coming from the Middle East, it is almost by nature a story involving endless war and hopes for peace. Maoz’s 2009 debut feature, “Lebanon,” was a fable inspired by his own experience as a tank gunner in the Israeli army, leaving the service after that 1982 war with PTSD inspired by the carnage he witnessed.
With “Foxtrot,” he returns with a military parable that feels first like a nightmare come to life, then lives turned to a nightmare. Disconnected from standard narrative formatting, the film is set in the present — or perhaps not. A fog of war, current or remembered, clouds every character’s sense of control and stability. Reality is routinely misinterpreted. We can’t trust much of the spoken word here; what seem to be narrative road maps are revealed time and again to be mind games. But the images are eloquent.
At the center of things, at least initially, are middle-aged parents Daphna and Michael Feldmann (Sarah Adler and reliably superb Lior Ashkenazi). We see her hospitably open her condominium’s front door as if to let us enter. Without a word being spoken, she encounters undefined bad news and collapses unconscious to the floor.
As they digest their tragic message, the Feldmanns, their 20ish daughter and Michael’s aging brother are unable to deal with the crisis. Only the men’s elderly mother, a Holocaust survivor, is able to maintain calm serenity. Michael, wide-eyed in pain, is directed by authorities like a child, told to remain calm by drinking a glass of water every hour, thirsty or not.
Meanwhile, at the remote military roadblock manned by their son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), life is also spent carrying out official orders, however senseless they may seem. As another soldier assigned to that eerie wasteland shrugs, “Everything you see here, it’s all an illusion.” The four soldiers at the outpost are not comfortable as hired guns. Jonathan, who keeps up morale by making a joke of everything, dances at length to music they broadcast on the bullhorn speakers, holding his assault rifle in his arms like a beautiful partner. The men may suffer irreparable damage, or they may cause it. Maoz shows exactly how catastrophic that fatal balance can be.
The first and second acts are knit together in the third, but not in ways that we have been led to expect. Jonathan’s parents join unexpectedly in a further surprise that leads them to pull out a joint, declare a cease-fire on their conflicts as a couple, and return to love and life, at least temporarily. As they laugh and look at Jonathan’s skillful cartoon sketches, Maoz shifts the film to dreamlike animation. Michael breaks into a foxtrot, explaining the steps that repeat endlessly but never move dancers from their starting place. It is the simplest and wisest film commentary on humanity’s melancholy state that I can remember.
“Foxtrot” was Israel’s entry in this year’s Oscar competition as best foreign language film, and inexplicably it lost. In this portrait of a family, a society and a nation trapped in cycles of unwinnable conflict, Maoz has made a film both painfully poignant and rich in mocking humor as dark as a mine shaft. It moves through veins of trauma and catharsis entirely rare in filmmaking.