No matter what you're expecting, "Foxtrot" is not the film you expect it to be. It's better.
Certainly anticipation for this Israeli feature couldn't be higher. It won the Silver Lion at Venice, took eight Ophir awards (Israel's Oscars) including best picture, best director and best actor, and is its country's submission for the foreign language Academy Award.
And for those who remember it, writer-director Samuel Maoz's last feature -- the brilliantly claustrophobic 2009 "Lebanon," a savage antiwar film that places you inside an Israeli tank and doesn't let you out -- is reason enough to look forward to what he's done next.
"Foxtrot," however, is nothing like "Lebanon." In fact, in the ambitious, even daring way it combines intense emotional drama with visual pizazz and bursts of unexpected surrealism, it's nothing like almost anything you can think of.
An intricate, dazzling cinematic dance, "Foxtrot" goes both deeper in and further out than standard-issue cinema. It's profound and moving and wild and crazy at the same time, simultaneously telling a specific story and offering an emotional snapshot of a country whose very soul seems to be at risk.
In a film with as many complexities and layers as "Foxtrot," even that seemingly straightforward title turns out to mean a number of different things.
Because the Israeli army is a key player in the narrative, foxtrot -- as those who've seen more than their share of old American war movies know -- is a word that functions as an identifier in military radio conversations.
But the foxtrot is also a dance, and as such it leads to both a snazzy out-of-nowhere visual sequence of a soldier partnering with his rifle as well as a quieter moment, poignant and almost despairing, between a husband and wife.
"Foxtrot" begins at the door of a high-rise apartment in Tel Aviv. A disembodied finger pushes the buzzer and Daphna (Sarah Adler) answers.
We see dread on Daphna's face before a word is spoken, and soon a soldier is telling her husband, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), the words every Israeli parent dreads: "There's no easy way to say this. Your son Jacob was killed in the line of duty."
The first part of "Foxtrot" is spent almost exclusively with Michael as he tries to get used to the reality of a nightmare he can never awaken from.
Ashkenazi, perhaps Israel's top star, has won the Ophir for best actor three times for very diverse roles, starting in 2001 with Dover Kosashvili's "Late Marriage," moving on to Joseph Cedar's "Footnote" and finally here.
The actor puts all of his skill and experience to work as he plays a profoundly lost man raging against the storm, striking out at all and sundry because of the great pain he's in.
Yet one of Ashkenazi's strongest scenes has him nominally doing not very much at all.
The camera holds a close-up on the actor as soldiers describe what will be happening with his son's funeral arrangements. On the surface, nothing is going on, but Ashkenazi's face is processing an enormous amount of emotion.
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, the film pivots and switches gears and deposits us in the remotest of remote Israeli outposts, where four young soldiers man a checkpoint that seems truly in the middle of nowhere.
As opposed to the overflow of emotion that is threatening to drown Michael, these young men are bored beyond tears by the infinite tedium of soldiering. Even the fact that the large metal container they are all sleeping in seems to be sinking does not break through the morass.
Every once in a great while, a car carrying random Arabs drives up to the checkpoint, and the soldiers, more or less oblivious to the casual humiliation they are inflicting, have to inspect their identification before letting them pass.
In telling these interlocking stories, filmmaker Maoz makes excellent use of cinematographer Giora Bejach, whose work includes numerous visually arresting moments, from random camels wandering into the scene to disorienting overhead shots of a geometrically patterned apartment floor. If there is an ordinary way to present things, "Foxtrot" is not interested.
One of the things this film is concerned about, though it in no way forces the issue, is the state of mind of the state of Israel. It shows how agonizing the loss of a single life can be and the toll constant war can take on a nation's psyche. There are no answers here, there couldn't be, but "Foxtrot" understands the importance of asking the questions.
Rating: R, for some sexual content including graphic images, and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles
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