• [The Daily] Venice + Toronto 2017: Samuel Moaz’s Foxtrot

    By David Hudson


    “Lebanon director Samuel Maoz went in a risky direction by making a film as different and daring as Foxtrot,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety, “and his boldness pays off in ways that make one reach for superlatives. Not content to merely confront the unspeakable grief of parents who lose a child, Maoz uses the film’s tripartite structure to encompass a devastating litany of Israeli attributes that run the gamut from machismo to racism to a past subverted by the Holocaust and then back again to grief. Just as no novel can tackle a mother’s fear of learning her soldier son is dead without being compared to David Grossman’s stunning To the End of the Land, so no film will be able to deal with a similar subject without being weighed against Foxtrot. Brilliantly constructed with a visual audacity that serves the subject rather than the other way around, this is award-winning filmmaking on a fearless level.”

    “Jonathan Feldman, a young conscript in the Israeli army, is dead,” explains the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “His mother Davra (Sarah Adler) collapses at the news and is immediately sedated as she lies on the floor by the door. His father Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is full of cold fury.” The military then admits “they’ve made a blunder. A Jonathan Feldman has died; just not his Jonathan Feldman. ‘My son was dead for five hours,’ he fumes. If anything, he’s more furious than before. Part two jumps without warning from the Feldmans’ oppressive apartment to the blighted northern border; from intensive close-ups to wide shots of a lunar landscape that could double for limbo. . . . The film’s third section lands us back in the city. . . . Maoz’s message is plain. This world is off-balance—and every day it gets worse.”

    “It takes a warped mind to sandwich the tragedy and somberness of Three Colors: Blue with the absurdist tone of an Aki Kaurismäki comedy,” writes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa, “but Maoz is at pains to show that even when characters live under a permanent dark cloud, there are also moments of laughter.”

    For IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “despite its dreary overtones, Maoz pierces his milieu with flashes of perceptive satire, an animated interlude, and a touching, romantic finale, all of which adds up to a wonderfully unexpected hodgepodge of insights into intergenerational Israeli frustrations.”

    “The film is definitely a strong experience,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter, “but putting it all together is up to the viewer. Taking a clue from the title, the characters seem to have a date with destiny because no matter what they do, they always end up in the same spot, like the forward and backward steps of the foxtrot. . . . In keeping with the film's bizarre, alienated style, cinematographer Giora Bejach makes effective use of an expressionist palette that ranges from bright, sunny desert colors to sickly green shades of mud and sleep-deprived faces.”

    “Seasoned veterans Ashkenazi and Adler, most of the time speaking barely above a whisper, make every single word, every look in their eyes and every bit of body language count, in what may be arguably some of the best work they’ve ever delivered on screen,” writes Dan Fainaru for Screen. “As for the straightforward, natural, unpretentious demeanor of inexperienced [Yonatan] Shiray playing their son, it provides just the right contrast between the two generations.”

    At CineVue, John Bleasdale finds that “for all the emotional depths of its subject matter,” Foxtrot is “a humorous and entertaining movie.”

    Updates, 9/6: “Maoz's use of space and depth in Foxtrot is superb, and it also helps add another layer of absurdity to the piece,” finds Thomas Humphrey at ScreenAnarchy.

    “The idea comes from an incident that happened to me a long time ago,” Moaz tells Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. The story that follows chills the blood.

    Update, 9/7: “The discovery of fresh, bold voices in cinema has always been one of the great joys of visiting film festivals,” writes Zhuo-Ning Su at the Film Stage. “And this year in Venice, probably no film in competition surprised more for its original touch and sheer vitality than Samuel Maoz’s Israel-set drama Foxtrot.

    Update, 9/8: “If Maoz doesn’t always manage to fully keep up with the fierce rhythm of his own storytelling, he makes up for it with the sheer virtuosity and boldness that brings his film alive,” writes Pamela Jahn for Cinema Scope.

    Update, 9/15: Foxtrot eventually becomes “a cross-generational study of institutionally-mandated trauma,” writes Tommaso Tocci at Ioncinema. “It takes a while to get there, and you wouldn’t necessarily predict a spectacular dance scene at a border checkpoint or a camel wandering around by itself to be part of the journey. And yet that’s where the movie shines.”

    For Paul O’Callaghan, writing for Sight & Sound, “the emerging triptych structure and flashy authorial intrusions have shattered the sense of intimacy and authenticity that made the opening scenes so stirring. But as the full story of Jonathan’s demise finally takes shape, it transpires that Maoz has kept a final, bitterly cruel trick up his sleeves. This elegant, compellingly multifaceted film makes Lebanon’s Golden Lion win seem entirely premature.”

    Update, 9/17: “It’s a damning indictment that's already stirred up controversy back in Moaz’s native country, as well as a tragicomic tale that’s ambitious enough to include near-pornographic animation and the greatest dancing-soldier scene this side of Beau Travail,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear.

    Update, 10/12: “It’s a film that can swing between absurdist humor and brutal gut-punch sadness, in a way that’s rare and, at times, truly profound,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. “There might be one twist of the knife too many in a way that feels a touch cruel, but otherwise it’s a film deserving of the acclaim and awards it’s picked up so far. Hopefully, it just won’t be another eight years until we see more from its director.”

    Updates, 12/9: “Avoiding speeches and exegesis, [Moaz] writes characters that talk like ordinary people in everyday life, even as he focuses your attention on their faces, their interactions with others, how they carry themselves, how they withdraw and advance,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Visually, though, Mr. Maoz leans into Expressionism. Michael and Dafna’s apartment, for instance, creates a powerful sense of a purposefully ordered world that is upended by grief; the abject decay surrounding Jonathan says something else entirely.”

    “By creating a compact chronicle of a single haute-bourgeois family rooted in the Holocaust, the film dramatizes how an epic historical trauma can mingle with present-day conflicts and reverberate through generations,” writes Michael Sragow for Film Comment.Foxtrot carries the excitement and punch of a fearless writer-director tackling contemporary material with a bracing cocktail of potent traditional drama, wild black comedy, and serrated style.”

    For Justin Chang, here for NPR, “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.”

    “When Foxtrot won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, Israel’s minister of culture condemned the film, which he may not have even seen, for promoting a negative, misleading impression of the Israeli Defense Forces,” notes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Like any film that depicts the daily boredom, loneliness, and fear soldiers experience—as well as the gauntlet of suffering visited upon their parents when they’re killed in action—Foxtrot can be considered anti-war and perhaps even anti-military. But it plays less like a specific indictment than something more mysterious: a tale of lives at the mercy of cosmic, karmic design. By the time Maoz has brought his film full circle, returning to and finally clarifying his first shot, a sense can be made of what’s happened to this family. But there’s not much comfort in that sense, for them or us.”

    Update, 12/11: Foxtrot arrives in the U.S. “at a depressingly timely moment, with President Donald Trump igniting another round of Middle East discord via his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” writes Nick Schager for the Daily Beast. “Far more accomplished than his prior fictional effort, 2009’s life-inside-a-wartime tank saga Lebanon, writer/director Samuel Maoz’s drama is a haunting meditation on pain, and the inability to truly break free from its grasp—a despondent perspective conveyed by this wrenching story of a family ravaged by both their own past offenses and the cruel hand of fate.”

    Venice and Toronto 2017 indexes. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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