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Two-state dissolution

Family tragedy cuts to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler in “Foxtrot”

Sony Pictures Classics

If movies were truly judged on merits alone, “Foxtrot” would dominate an awards season all the way through Oscar night.

When you look past what keeps a film like this out of the zeitgeist—an Israeli production with actors unknown to the West and a no-name director helming his second-ever dramatic feature—what you actually see is filmmaking that’s second-to-none. 

Soul-baring performances of heartbreaking anguish intensify a true mastery of cinematic craft, one that transcends high production values to an evocative aesthetic teeming with intention and purpose, the kind that—from cinematography to production design to editing—can only be defined as capital-A Art.

Elevating it even further, “Foxtrot” tackles a complex issue (the Israel/Palestinian conflict) from a deeply personal perspective, and it resonates much more convincingly than a slant of pedantic political soapboxing ever could (or would).

Two Israeli parents learn of the death of their son, a soldier killed in the line of duty. This shattering news is turned upside-down by a shocking revelation about thirty minutes in, provoking a search for what really happened. “Foxtrot” is a fitting title for that maddening pursuit; it’s a dance that keeps its participants shuffling around in circles.

The opening half-hour focuses primarily on the father (Lior Ashkenazi, “Footnote”). It’s an immersion into the initial hours of unspeakable grief and the numbing despair of necessary plans. The military officers guiding these steps have a detached procedural tone, magnifying the inhumanity of the loss.

Director Samuel Maoz’s visual language has the same effect. From the extended close-up that never cuts away from the father as he processes the news to stark dramatic angles (overhead wides, choreographed tracking, and more), Maoz amplifies the father’s disorientation, queasiness, and emotional claustrophobia.

The film’s second act then flashes back in time to the son’s final days at the rural military outpost, a checkpoint so remote that nothing ever happens there—until it does. Somehow, Maoz makes the tedium at this station equally fascinating, comical at times, tense at others, and poignantly revealing by way of the late-night conversations he depicts there.

Maoz also shows what it’s like for innocent Palestinians to be put under intimidation and scrutiny simply for trying cross through Israeli territory.

For the final stretch Maoz brings us back to the present and the parents. With vulnerable candor, they reconcile truths and regrets. It’s a necessary confrontation between husband and wife; they offer confessions both sad and poetic.

A Hollywood adaptation wouldn’t commit to the integrity of this three-act structure—it likely would insist on cutting back and forth between present and past (if for no other reason than to keep the star from being off-screen too long), and it would be much lesser for it. The focus on each experience helps the story and themes to crescendo before packing their punches.

The truth of what happened is a devastating consequence of the Israeli/Palestinian divide, one where innocents on both sides are victims of intransigent ideologies. It’s a fictional story, but versions of it exist in the real word. “Foxtrot” mourns them all.

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