This emotional knockout from Israel isn’t nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film at the 2018 Oscars – another strike to add to the tally of Academy fuck-ups. From first shot to last, Foxtrot takes a piece out of you. Director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) begins with a devastating moment of grief: Soldiers arrive at the home of a middle-aged couple to tell Dafna (Sarah Adler) and Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) that their son has been killed in the line of duty. As his mother is tranquilized, his father is told about funeral arrangements. The military ritual is tragically commonplace. But for Michael, the sudden desolation is impossible to process. After calling his Auschwitz-survivor mother (Karin Ugowski), he locks himself in the bathroom, his face ravaged with anguish, pouring scalding water on his hands. Ashkenzai, a superb actor, reaches a new career peak. You will be shaken.
In the film’s second section – there are three – Maoz switches focus to four Israeli soldiers on border patrol in the desert. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), the Feldmans’ son, is one of a group manning a security checkpoint. We watch the young soldiers sleep in a large shipping container and fight off boredom with talk, video games, even a little soft-shoe. Maoz and the gifted cinematographer Giora Bejach turn the desert into a dream-like landscape where a camel can walk through a security gate and Jonathan can grab a rifle and use it as a dance partner. The mood is broken when Palestinians attempt to cross and suffer humiliating interrogations. It does not end well.
In the final third, we’re back in the Feldman apartment, where a personal war is raging between Michael and Dafna. Moaz builds his film out of puzzle pieces that don’t easily fit together. But there’s no mistaking the writer-director’s anger at his country for sending soldiers to die for questionable politics. That anger has brought accusations against the movie’s supposed “anti-Israel narrative.” Is it that or more likely a humanist plea for change directed at any country that extends war and ignores its futility? You be the judge. Foxtrot makes demands on audiences and then richly rewards them. It’s a riveting, deeply resonant achievement.