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‘Foxtrot’ swept the Israeli Academy Awards. Here’s why it’s controversial

A few years ago, Israeli director Samuel Maoz had a scare to end all scares. Maoz’s teenage daughter was prone to waking up late and relying on parental largesse to get to school. So he decided to teach her a gentle lesson one morning and send her on a city bus.

Shortly after she left the house, Maoz heard that a bus had exploded in a terrorist attack. Many of its passengers were dead.

“It was the same bus she was going to take,” Maoz recalled, “the No. 5. I tried to call her, but I couldn’t get through because the cellular network had collapsed.”

The moments of waiting, he said, were an indescribable agony. “I experienced the worst hour of my life — worse than anything I experienced serving in the [1982] Lebanon war.”

It turns out Maoz’s daughter had missed the bus by mere seconds and was still alive. But the incident stayed with the director in a peculiar way.

“I asked what I can learn from this story and realized I can learn nothing,” he said. “There’s just a gap between the things I can control and the things I can't control.”

He did, however, fashion a movie out of it. Eight autumns after his first narrative feature “Lebanon” took the foreign-film world by storm with its frightening intimacy and tank-set claustrophobia, Maoz is back with another compelling film. On Sept. 19 that film, “Foxtrot,” swept the Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards, winning eight prizes, including best picture. That means, among other things, that “Foxtrot” will now be the official Israeli entry at this year’s foreign-language Oscars.

“Foxtrot” is based on the feeling the director had that school day morning. Winning the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival (compared to “Lebanon’s” Gold Lion prize), it spins from its director’s anxiety a tale of a successful nearly middle-aged couple, the Feldmans, who learn from military attaches that their fresh-out-high-school son was killed while engaged in mandatory military service.

What seems for the first half-hour to be a straight-ahead story of parental mourning, a kind of “Ordinary People” by way of the Galilee, soon turns into something stranger and more ambitious. The news is not as simple as it seems, and Maoz follows the action to a remote military roadblock and back to the Tel Aviv bourgeoisie, telling a multigenerational story of victimhood and guilt, of the Holocaust and the Israeli Defense Forces.

Viewers who remember “Lebanon” will be surprised by the new film’s style. Far from a neo-verite look at the harshness of Middle East War, “Foxtrot’s” scenes are as likely to be shot through with magical realism as gritty realism. The film is laden with slick shot-making and indelible images, as technically dazzling as it is emotionally weighty.

“As far as I’m concerned, the movie is a philosophical puzzle,” Maoz said in an interview at the recently concluded Toronto Film Festival, where the drama had its North American premiere. “It’s the dirty concept, this nature of fate, and the attempt to understand it, to clean it, is what’s interesting to me.”

“Foxtrot,” which was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the U.S., is also a politically charged picture, showing not just the human side of grief but the moral hazards of military occupation — particularly during a scene in which inexperienced Israeli soldiers kill innocent Palestinians in a moment of panic and an Israeli army commander then, very literally, covers up the incident.

Even ahead of its release in Israel, the film already has become a hot-button subject thanks to the country’s famously conservative culture minister, Miri Regev, condemning it as a traitorous act. Maoz laughed off the condemnation and said the right-wing government would be better off embracing the movie, which was financed by the government’s official film fund.

“She said I’m bad publicity. But there’s nothing better for the Israeli government than to show it’s willing to criticize itself,” Maoz said. “They didn’t play this right. They used to play chess, and now they’re boxing.”

The friction between Israel’s arts community and Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government has been sparking for a while; it came to the international fore with a controversial gown Regev wore on the Cannes red carpet this year, depicting the Old City of Jerusalem to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Regev was not invited to the Ophirs by Israel’s film academy.

For her part, the culture minister has said publicly she will rethink the ways funds are disbursed to artists, leaving open questions on the table about the future sponsorship of films like “Foxtrot,” which have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.

For those who have a more practical inquiry of Maoz — where has he been since 2009? — he has an elusive answer. The director, 55, said he had been concentrating on other activities such as building furniture and raising his daughters while also developing a black comedy that has yet to be produced. He had also been flirting with several military stories, “but I’m not sure I want the army to be my career.” So he took them all and folded them into his film.

With tensions rising between Hezbollah and Israel on the latter’s northern border, “Foxtrot” has plenty to say about the current state of region.

But its lessons are hardly restricted to the Middle East. With more than 15 years of post-9/11 war under its belt, American society is also tragically acquainted with soldiers returning in body bags, and the parental grief that follows.

It’s a subject that could be on the minds of mainstream U.S. moviegoers this season too, with Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” opening the New York Film Festival and then arriving in theaters several weeks later. The movie is a look at a Vietnam veteran (Steve Carell) who loses a son to the war in Iraq and must see to the funeral arrangements.

Such stories — wherever they take place — address more universal dynamics: of countries at the crossroads of patriotism and military tragedy.

“I won't be naive and say there is no social or political statement in my film,” Maoz said. “But it’s more broad than specific. I don't have an interest in a realistic film about a roadblock. The roadblock is a microcosm of a society — any society — that has its perception distorted by a past trauma.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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UPDATES:

Sept. 25: This story was updated with additional information about the film “Foxtrot’s” U.S. distribution.

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