Watching the Israeli film “Foxtrot ” is like watching a dream play out.
Writer-director Samuel Maoz’s (“Lebanon”) excellent film is of course more structured than the average dream (or nightmare), with themes and Greek tragedy twists that are expertly crafted to test the heart, but there is a precise sensation of out-of-body powerlessness and comic absurdity throughout that can only be described as dream-like. And the overall experience is a meditative and powerful one.
The story is ostensibly about a man, Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi) and a woman, Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler) immediately after they are told that their son, Jonathan, a soldier, has died in the line of duty. Daphna faints at the sight of the military messengers at her door and is taken to her room and sedated. Michael peers down the hallway, stunned and unable to do anything — cry, help, speak. The officers tell him to drink water every hour, get him a glass and set a recurring alarm on his phone to remind him. They tell him what will happen in the next few days. It is efficient, emotionless and routine, and all while this is happening around him, the camera barely moves from a close-up of Michael’s haunted face.
Family members come by unannounced and uninvited and weep in Michael’s arms. But then his aging mother seems unfazed by the news. Occasional dance breaks (really) begin to make as much sense as anything else as we drift along with Michael in this initial state of shock.
This whole first section, while beautifully shot, designed and acted, feels a little like wheel spinning in its repetitiveness. What is the point, you wonder. Then the film slaps you awake before it lulls you back to the trance state as it takes you to the remote military outpost where Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray) was stationed and looks back on the past six months of his life there.
These scenes at the outpost begin to take on a surreal quality as Jonathan and his three comrades waste the days away on this desert stretch, wonder whether the shipping crate they sleep in is sinking on one end (it is, and makes for some amazing shots), and occasionally face tense moments checking the IDs of those attempting to cross this terribly arbitrary border. There is an intentional artificiality to this setting that feels at times like a Radiohead video cross pollinated with a David Lynch film. It is darkly funny, haunting and transfixing, even if it doesn’t immediately appear to be adding up to much other than the maddening detachment of military service.
On one routine stop, the soldiers make one couple get out of the car. The two people are dressed in formal wear and seem to be on their way somewhere. The guys make the woman dump the contents of her clutch onto the dirt road and stand there while they run their ID. While they are waiting, it begins to rain, first a little and then a downpour on the woman’s gown and updo. She holds back tears while trying to smile at her husband standing on the other side of the car. Whether this was meant to humiliate her, or perhaps to indicate how alien the soldiers have become, it’s just one of many unforgettable sequences “Foxtrot” has to offer.
Words here are sparse but purposeful, and one amazing monologue begins to connect all the dots and lend a greater significance to everything as it ties these two generations, Jonathan’s and Michael’s, to the one before it, the one that experienced the Holocaust.
If this is all sounding rather vague, it’s meant to be. It is better to know next to nothing about “Foxtrot” going in, as this is absolutely a film that, like a dream, is best experienced and not explained.