Review: The Architecture of Grief and Dread in ‘Foxtrot’

Review: The Architecture of Grief and Dread in ‘Foxtrot’
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A scene from Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot.” Credit Giora Bejach/Sony Picture Classics

The violence in the Israeli movie “Foxtrot” starts with a tremor. The shudders begin soon after the movie does when a woman opens a door, stares into the camera and falls to the ground. Just one look, and Dafna (Sarah Adler) knows the worst: The soldiers on her doorstep have come bringing death. Her son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who’s in the army, has been killed. In a whir of motion and fatigue green, they stoop over Dafna, soothing and sedating her, then tucking her in bed. Her husband, Michael (a fantastic Lior Ashkenazi), mutely stares at this scene as if he were a bystander in his own life.

It’s a grabber of an opening in a movie that builds into a devastating indictment of a nation, shock by shock, brutal moment by brutal moment. (The movie is Israel’s Oscar entry in the foreign-language category.) Meaning surfaces slowly here in details, flashes of cruelty, glimmers of apathy and a mounting sense of helplessness. First, though, there are parental tears and Dafna and Michael’s handsome, sparsely furnished apartment with its tidy bookshelves and modernist furniture. The biggest room, where Michael lingers while watching Dafna collapse, has a geometrically patterned floor and is so large and precisely arranged that it suggests a showroom. At times, it also evokes a stage.

With Dafna asleep in the bedroom, Michael initially suffers and mourns alone. His red eyes watering yet not quite spilling over, he understandably seems to be in shock. The soldiers have tended to him, too, fussing and hovering over him; in one shot, he looks up at them as if he were a child. His brother (Yehuda Almagor), comes by and begins busily arranging a memorial notice. Two women rush in as well, including Michael and Dafna’s daughter (Shira Haas). Everyone plays his or her part. The soldiers re-enter, and one comfortably settles into a chair and rather too blithely proposes funeral arrangements to Michael, sketching in every detail with the fastidious attention of a wedding planner.

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Yonatan Shiray, far right, as a soldier in “Foxtrot.” Credit Giora Bejach/Sony Picture Classics

The writer and director Samuel Maoz (“Lebanon”) has an exacting eye. The framing is meticulous; soon it’s also very purposefully working your nerves. Although Michael briefly leaves to tell his mother about Jonathan, much of the movie’s first section unfolds inside the apartment. It’s a cloistered space, made more confining by the tight close-ups of Michael’s face (Mr. Ashkenazi makes mourning palpable in each twitch), his ponderous, near-somnolent movements and several overhead shots of him. These dramatically isolate him in the frame while creating an ambiguous, narratively untethered point of view, as if we were peering at him from a catwalk. Filmmakers call this a God’s-eye view.

By the time the first section is over, a near-miracle has occurred. Jonathan turns out to be alive, and after his parents process the news, the story shifts to him. He’s in a remote outpost fulfilling the compulsory military service demanded of most Israelis when they turn 18. Along with three other young men, Jonathan guards a checkpoint, lowering and raising a barrier for the occasional passing car or slow-loping camel. At night, the soldiers train a harsh spotlight on passers-by and check IDs. It’s a dramatically beautiful, seemingly depopulated area, framed by distant mountains and bisected by a single lonely road that seems to stretch on forever yet also to go nowhere.

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