‘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.

‘Under the tree,’ an Icelandic saga of common men and women

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson has brought to Venice Under the Tree, his third feature film. Of those your correspondent has seen so far in the third day of the Festival, it is perhaps the most accomplished movie overall.

In the tradition of oral history that Icelanders have practiced for centuries, there is not one word too many.

Domestic dramas unfold that spiral into a vortex that draw into it two families, with bloody consequences. All is happening under the shadow, literal and metaphorical, of a large tree, which looked like a plantain to this writer. All that can go wrong, will.

Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is the unlikely hero, who may appear weak at first sight. There are several layers of analysis, but one stands out: the ascent of women in the West as men are being displaced to equal partners, or sometimes less. That, and manipulative skills of their wives and girlfriends, stirs up passions that engulf men in a sea of violence.

It all starts with an embarrassing situation. Atli is trying to stimulate himself to the sight of a sex tape featuring himself and a lover. His wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir), finds him. You would think the worst that would happen is their split. But as a divided house collapses unto itself, the building blocks claim many more victims.

Men are generally trying to be reasonable but women, right as they are (as seen from their side of the fence) worsen conflict as they become self-righteous. Until men, even as they are trying to defuse a situation that is getting out of hand, are left to deal with their problems with their hands as they always have.

It is a story of conflict of men and women, as common and prone to weaknesses as you and me. There are no divinities in the movie, just the material world of living creatures, houses, cars, stores and workplaces in which we all live. The only gods are our passions. And the characters are as flawed as anyone, as heroes and antiheroes in the sagas were, too.

Friedkin: If I knew, I would not have made ‘The Exorcist’

 

William Friedkin, the maker of The Exorcist, the 1973 classic movie, had never seen an exorcism. Almost half a century later, and with curiosity still biting him, he found himself in Lucca, the Tuscan city where he received the Paganini prize for music in April 2016. He was told that Pisa was a half-hour drive away. As he wanted to see the leaning tower, he went for it. And then they told him that Rome was just a one-hour flight from Pisa. On an impulse, Friedkin wrote to a theologian friend in Rome, who arranged a meeting with Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome and beloved priest.

In response to a question from the public in the Q&A session afterwards, Friedkin (in the picture next to his wife) admitted that his most celebrated movie would not exist, or not as it is now. “If I had met Fr. Amorth first, I would not have made The Exorcist.” There were gasps coming from the audience. “Not the way I made it,” he added following a moment of silence.

The result of his encounters with the Roman exorcist was a documentary on exorcism, including footage of an actual one: The Devil and Father Amorth. With deadpan humor, Friedkin lamented last night that journalists got the privilege of seeing first his documentary, that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. The baffled response he received from the media had obviously stung him.

“They always make journalists watch the movie first,” Friedkin said. “There are now five thousand newspapers in the world that call me a schmuck for making this movie.

Friedkin’s sarcasm may be justified. Fewer professionals in the world can be as jaded and cynical as reporters. And surely, the sight of an elderly priest mumbling Latin prayers to an unrestrained woman screaming “I am Satan!” would be too tempting for the cruelest practitioners of this trade to pass up. So surely, newsmen around the globe have been pouring gallons of acid ink on the man who created a cult movie almost half a century ago.

The documentary is watchable. Friedkin knows his trade. We follow him as he interviews a woman who was successfully exorcised and Fr. Amorth, who in his youth during World War Two fought in the Italian resistance against fascism and later found his vocation in the church. And then we see the ninth exorcism of Cristina, a beautiful Italian architect who lives in a lovely small town near Rome, who we were told was still possessed by the devil. “We are legions!” she (or the demons) screams in a voice that comes from deep down a very disturbed soul.

Or so it seems on the screen. Seeing her being restrained by four men and howling as she does, you can believe that Italian police —not faint of heart, as they fight mafia bosses— refused once to enter the home of a possessed woman, hearing her from the outside. As it happens, Fr. Amorth, passed away shortly after Friedkin made his documentary and before practicing his tenth exorcism of Cristina, who was still possessed at the time.

Skeptics (including the almost entire universe of journalists: call it a professional bias) will see plenty in the movie to scoff at it and make fun of almost everything. And indeed, Friedkin —who calls himself an agnostic— comes across as a bit credulous. You would expect him to push harder for answers and to delve deeper. Perhaps aware of that, he showed his video of the exorcism to a group of leading psychiatrists in the United States: Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute; Michael B. First, professor of clinical psychiatry; Roberto Lewis-Fernández, president-elect of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry; and Ryan Lawrence, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.

For all his attempts at making a documentary based on facts, the aura of the The Exorcist followed Friedkin. One of the researchers he showed his footing of the actual exorcism had doubts. “There is no head spinning, no levitation,” the psychiatrist said. “Doctor, we made that up! It was just a movie!” responded Friedkin.