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‘Foxtrot’ paces the life of a traumatized family and their soldier boy

There is nothing in life like the certainty of death. Absolutely everything else is uncertain. Foxtrot begins with a view of truck hood as it speeds down a desert road. In the following frame, we get a close-up of an apartment door, with two soldiers standing at the edge of the camera. “Ms. Feldman?” asks one of the soldiers as the door opens. The woman—and the audience—needs no further to understand the situation. She faints and the drama begins, with a poetical cadence that Israeli director Samuel Moaz has woven into this unassuming masterpiece.

Jonathan Feldman has fallen in the line of duty. Predictable, unbearably heart-wrenching scenes ensue in the posh Tel Aviv apartment. If you have an eye for those things, you would soon realize that this is an architect’s home. Everything is neat and has its place. The soldiers sedate the woman and advise the man to drink plenty of water. And it is water, the element of life, that is the other silent player of the movie along with death. Water is scarce in Israel; death, less so.

And death is hovering over the character’s lives and the audience, enthralled by the pathos that is building up as the story of a family trying to hold itself together in the face of tragedy and amid the nervous breakdown of soldier Jonathan’s parents. They don’t have a body to bury, suspects the enraged father. Or maybe he is not even dead, and his father wants to see him right away.

The architect goes to communicate his mother about the tragedy. What appears to be the onset of Alzheimer has ravaged her sensitivity rather than her mind. She does indeed understand that her grandchild, the soldier, has died. Her son asks her twice to make sure she is aware of what has happened. She has indeed, but her glacial reaction would belie it. Yet the poignancy in the dialogue between the elderly woman and her son is unspoken. He is speaking in Hebrew and she is responding in Yiddish. Well into her eighties, a sensitive viewer will understand she must have been a young Holocaust survivor. “She understands everything and nothing,” the architect tells his brother.

And the Arabs are a silent presence, as is the state of war that has young conscripts on edge even at a sleepy checkpoint in the middle of a barren landscape. A dromedary crosses back and forth, indifferent to the barrier and the four soldiers who spend mostly uneventful days at the outpost. The dead calm is only broken when once in a blue moon a car with Arab license plates approaches the crossing. The floodlight is trained on the car and sometimes their occupants are made to come down and stand outside even in a downpour. Raindrops fall mercilessly, grinding on the car occupants standing outside, the nervous soldiers and an audience transported to the dramas of an Israeli family and their homeland. If the jury feels as the public, the 15-minute standing ovation the cast and the director —present at the Festival’s Sala Grande— seems the prelude to the top prize at Venice.

As your correspondent was heading to the movie theater to watch the premiere, he bumped in the elevator into a young, petite woman and a thin young man who were arguing about something in Hebrew, a language he can recognize but does not understand. Whatever it was they were discussing about, in the three-floor trip they had made up and left laughing. This writer was stunned to see these young couple on the big screen next. The girl was Alma (Shira Haas), the fallen soldier’s sister in the movie. The young man was Yonathan Shiray, who plays Jonathan in Foxtrot. Alma in Hebrew means woman of childbearing age who has not yet had a child; Jonathan (or Yonatan or its variants in Hebrew) mean “Yahweh, or God, has given.” In Foxtrot, Jonathan’s father had turned his back on God, He who gives and who takes.