The foxtrot is a simple dance, a box step in which the dancers move forward, then to the side, to the back and the side again. They end up exactly where they began, a square that is infinitely repeatable and leads nowhere.
At least that is the way the dance is depicted in Samuel Maoz’s eponymous new film. “Foxtrot,” which opens on Friday, Dec. 8, is an intricate, bleak but often funny rumination on the no-exit nature of life in contemporary Israel; that life is seen as an absurdist tragicomedy of often fatal errors, underpinning the profound melancholy of aging and mortality.
Maoz’s first feature, the brilliant “Lebanon,” was a pessimistic film based on the writer-director’s experiences as a tank crew member in the First Lebanon War. Taking place entirely within the interior of the tank itself, the film was inventive and claustrophobic, a startling debut that one hoped would herald another distinctive voice from Israeli film.
It took eight years, but “Foxtrot” is an admirable confirmation that Maoz is a major talent.
The film opens with a shot of a desolate road through the desert as seen from interior of a truck. It’s a long take, suggesting that this image is one of great significance for the film’s narrative. But, tellingly, Maoz leaves us uncertain as to what it means, only returning to the shot at the very end of the film for a stunning payoff that underlines and unifies the film’s themes. That choice is also a hint at the film’s complex mosaic structure.
Suddenly, inexplicably, we are in an upper-middle-class apartment in Tel Aviv as an IDF notification team comes to tell Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna Feldman (Sarah Adler) that their son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) has been killed in combat under unexplained circumstances. Answering the door and seeing the trio of soldiers, Dafna falls to the floor and begins convulsing.
After this trauma, an even crueler reality asserts itself. The Jonathan Feldman who was killed is not their son after all; their Jonathan is alive, manning a miserable checkpoint in the middle of nowhere with three other slacker misfits, crushed by the tedium and emptiness of their days.
“Foxtrot” has an intricate structure that replicates the box step of its title dance. Every well-intentioned act of the film’s protagonists, from Michael’s insistence on having his son brought home to a sudden, devastating encounter at Jonathan’s checkpoint, ends in disaster. It is undoubtedly not an accident that one of the film’s funniest moments, involving a camel passing through the checkpoint, a moment worthy of Samuel Beckett, will come back to haunt the film’s central characters.
The film’s visual style is a splendid complement to its narrative complexity. The sequences in the Feldman apartment are structured around extreme close-ups of Ashkenazi and Adler, unflinchingly revealing and powerfully resonant. (The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, with Ashkenazi once again proving himself one of the gems of Israeli film.) The palette is confined to black, white and gray, with the chilly modernism of the apartment suggesting the underlying dysfunction of their marriage.
By comparison, the sequences at the checkpoint use long shots and long takes to emphasize the weird combination of camaraderie and self-absorption that characterizes the relationship between the four feckless soldiers. The overwhelming visual component of these scenes is dirt and decay. They live in an abandoned, rusting corrugated steel shipping container, their equipment is decrepit and jury-rigged, and the overall feeling is that the quartet are living in outtakes from one of the Mad Max films.
The genius of “Foxtrot” is that Maoz integrates these seemingly disparate elements, throwing in a bit of animation and a plethora of family secrets, into a coherent, often startling whole. The film is audacious in its structure and bitter and sardonic in its tone.
Now, if Maoz would only not make us wait another eight years for his next work.
“Foxtrot” is the official Israeli selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language film. It will have a limited run in New York to establish Oscar eligibility, beginning Friday, Dec. 8, at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.; https://quadcinema.com). The film will have a wider release in March.