TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Israeli writer-director Samuel Maoz won the top prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival for his first feature, "Lebanon." He recently returned to the festival and won the Grand Jury Prize - that's second place - for "Foxtrot," a three-part drama about a husband and wife reeling from the news of their soldier son's death. The movie will represent Israel in the upcoming Academy Awards race for best foreign language film. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The characters in the films of Samuel Maoz are all trapped in one way or another. His 2009 drama, "Lebanon," was a blistering critique of Israel's 1982 invasion of its northern neighbor and an impressively sustained exercise in confinement. It unfolded entirely inside a tank, forcing us to see the devastation of war from the limited vantage of four young troops. Maoz's remarkable new movie, "Foxtrot," tells a different kind of soldier story, set in the present day and divided into three distinct chapters. It's nowhere near as physically claustrophobic as "Lebanon," but its characters seem just as immobilized.
The title, a reference to the three-step dance move that brings you back to your starting position, becomes a clever if heavy handed metaphor for a nation mired in its own stasis. The first chapter begins with a couple being informed that their son, Jonathan Feldmann, has been killed in the line of duty while stationed at a far flung military outpost. The boy's mother, Daphna, played by Sarah Adler, passes out and is immediately given tranquillizers by the attending soldiers. For the next half hour or so, the camera follows her husband, Michael, played by Lior Ashkenazi, as he moves through a kind of trance. He looks on in blank incomprehension as family members offer supportive hugs and a soldier coldly dictates funeral protocol. Maoz evokes Michael's shell-shocked fury by keeping us visually off balance, sometimes through brazenly theatrical formal conceits. The atmosphere feels airless but charged with suspense. The camera tracks up and down the corridors of the Feldmann's apartment, whose oppressively stylish monochrome decor adds to the vague air of unreality.
Ashkenazi, perhaps the best-known Israeli actor working today, gives a tremendous performance as Michael, barely sublimating and finally unleashing his rage against the government and the military. It isn't just the tragic news they brought to his door but the chilly, bureaucratic efficiency with which they treat the newly bereaved. The second chapter brings us to a security checkpoint in the middle of the desert, where at this point in the story, Jonathan, played by Yonaton Shiray, is alive and well. He and his three soldier buddies spend most of their days goofing off in a squalid shipping container that is slowly sinking into the dirt. On those rare occasions when cars approach their checkpoint, however, the young men spring into action.
Maoz courts our sympathies for the quiet, nameless Arab civilians trying to pass through who are forced to sit and wait for long periods of time or even stand outside in the pouring rain. The tension cultivated in the first act boils over in the second, ultimately erupting in tragedy. The third chapter returns us to the Feldmann's apartment sometime later to find the family utterly ravaged by grief. Michael is no longer living with Daphna, but he's dropped in on the occasion of what would've been Jonathan's 20th birthday. Adler, her character no longer sedated but fully alert and angry, matches Ashkenazi's performance moment for furious moment. Daphna blames Michael for Jonathan's death, railing against him for his selfishness and weakness while giving full voice to the unceasing agony of any parent who has ever lost a child.
As demonstrated by past movies, like "Waltz With Bashir" and "Beaufort," any film that touches on the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces can expect to become a lightning rod for controversy. The nation's Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev has already attacked "Foxtrot" for its self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative. Maoz, for his part, has said in interviews that his critique comes from a place of love. If I criticize the place I live, I do it because I worry, he told The Times of Israel.
The specificity of the film's argument is unmistakable. The Feldmanns, we learn, lost relatives in Auschwitz, and Maoz suggests that the horrific legacy of the Holocaust is merely the gravest of the many scars that have led his characters to their anguished present mindset. The harsh everyday reality of the occupation has played its part as well. But on a deeper level, "Foxtrot" resonates because the attributes we see in these characters - their bitterness, their pride, their instinctive distrust of the other - are hardly the domain of one family or one country alone. In its wrenching final moments, this bruisingly powerful movie could be taking place in any state where men and women rage against each other, where historical trauma looms large in the collective memory and where young people are sent off to a war without end.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our recent interviews with James Franco, Patton Oswalt and Daniel Ellsberg, and our interview with Jane Mayer and Rebecca Traister about sexual harassment, check out our podcast. You'll find those and lots of other interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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