‘Footnote’: It’s in the details

March 5, 2012


I don’t think there was a movie at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival (or New York after that) that thrilled me in the same way that “Footnote” did.

Joseph Cedar’s film, about a family of academics, creates a tension that squeezes laughs out of the audience. It’s the kind of family dynamic that Ingmar Bergman would appreciate – or Woody Allen.

In this Israeli film, an Oscar-nominee for foreign film this year, Cedar has created a story about a man whose quest for a kind of personal academic truth finally brings him a long-denied honor. But his restless, relentless need to examine the facts of seemingly every molecule of his life ultimately bring him to something else.

As played by Shlomo Bar-Aba, Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik is a scholar with a routine, spending hours in the university library stacks and his book-lined office at home, ignoring his family and the rest of the world. He’s got his noise-cancelling headphones on and he’s studying the same thing he’s studied for his entire career: an obscure, long-thought lost version of a section of the Talmud.

His laser-like focus on his work almost gives him an aspect that says “Asperger syndrome.” You can see his social unease in the beginning of the film, when he seems to be the only unhappy person at a ceremony at the university honoring his son. Both father and son are philologists – but father is the strict academic, looking for the definitive understanding of text, while his son, Prof. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is more populist, looking to interpret rather than confirm or cement anything.

As a result, Uriel is a best-selling author, the recipient of numerous awards – while Eliezer is still a curmudgeonly loner, grumbling to himself about honors denied because of long-held academic grudges, or denigrating the awards he’s been denied as having declined in importance because of the people to whom they’ve been awarded.

Then, finally, the universe clicks into place, if only for a second: Eliezer receives a phone call congratulating him on being selected as one of the recipients of the Israel Prize, one of the country’s highest honors. Vindication is his at last.

But Uriel is summoned to the university where the award is given and quietly told the truth: A secretary called the wrong number – in fact, the award was meant for the son, not the father. Now what?

That is the crux of Cedar’s deliciously crafted tale of family guilt and recrimination. The give-and-take between father and son – and the emptiness of an unfulfilled relationship – are at the center, but so are questions of personal integrity and self-sacrifice.

Put it this way: Eliezer doesn’t just nurse grudges – he nurtures them, fertilizes them, harvests them and plants them again. He is the ultimate sourpuss, resolute in his intractability, his unwillingness to bend or compromise. Or is he?

Cedar casually draws a portrait of a family that has lived in fear of this man and his ungiving personal rectitude. But the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree – and Uriel worries (not without cause) that he is not that different from his father.

Cedar has also written a film about secrets and their consequences – as well as the consequences of sharing them. The biggest, of course, is the name of the true winner of the Israel Prize – but that’s far from the only one in Cedar’s tantalizing and occasionally mysterious movie.

In his fourth film, Cedar displays both a certain playfulness (utilizing a transitional visual device that echoes the act of looking at microfilm) and rigorous discipline. Watch the opening sequence, in which Cedar holds his camera on Eliezer’s face as Uriel accepts an award and tells a story from his youth about his father. It’s a flattering, witty story – but Eliezer sits stone-faced, virtually unblinking, as Cedar’s camera moves imperceptibly closer to him. His stillness, his look of distaste – everything about him speaks volumes about this man, even as Cedar’s whimsical music oversells the drama of any given moment to humorous effect.

Emotionally complex, “Footnote” is about the power struggle between father and son, as well as the arcane, sometimes inane ways of academia. It’s a film that tickles the brain, even as it pushes the viewer to dig deeper into the rich internal family struggle Cedar depicts.

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