starring Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi
written and directed by Joseph Cedar
Joseph Cedar's Footnote (Hearat Shulayim) begins with what looks like a son's loving tribute to his intellectual origins. Rising to accept his invitation to the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, slick Talmud scholar Uriel Scholnik (Lior Ashkenazi) waxes reverent about the professional example set by his uncompromising father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), himself a Talmud scholar who spent the better part of his adult years toiling away on textual variants observed in microfiche while his son cut his teeth on high theory. We stay tight on Eliezer, his head bowed and his mouth locked in a grimace, as his son tells an anecdote about a survey he had to fill out as a primary student, identifying his father's profession. "Say that I'm a teacher," the younger Scholnik recalls Eliezer saying, portraying a man at once too modest to own up to his repute as a philologist and fixated on the pedagogical value of his work--an obsession Uriel claims to have happily inherited.
Within minutes, we find out that while the details of Uriel's toast are more or less correct, the tenor of his story is a complete fabrication. Insulted by the banality of a survey that would have reduced him to a one-word summary skimmed by an elementary-school instructor who couldn't possibly understand his work, Eliezer offered "teacher" as a kind of joke to himself and an unceremonious "fuck you" to his son. Uriel, for his part, never forgot it, saving its recollection for the moment of his induction into the society that never welcomed his father--the lone scholar in the room without the telltale wristband. This is a deft and layered introduction to a story that's as much about a fundamental disagreement concerning the nature of scholarship and intellectual labour as a professional rivalry between two generational figureheads. A deserving winner for best screenplay at Cannes last year, Cedar's film impressively interweaves these separate strands of father-son tragedy and academic intrigue.
One needn't be conversant with the Talmud to grasp the basic terms of Cedar's interest in the cleft between close textual scholarship (the sort carried out in the musty, cloistered libraries in which Eliezer has achieved his life's work) and cultural studies that this generational detour encapsulates. Eliezer likens his son's celebrated work on memory and identity in the Babylonian diaspora to the pen-scratchings of a lazy archaeologist who'll take any old empty pot, and he sees himself as the sort who can historically situate said pot simply by its markings. It's the difference between an old-school bibliographer and a contemporary firebrand like Slavoj Žižek, who responds to critiques of his accuracy with less than a shrug. Cedar takes these distinctions seriously without endorsing Eliezer's immediate dismissal of his son's work; what follows is an odd sort of thriller about intelligent people that focuses more on method than on plot.
That's not to say there isn't a narrative throughline. On the contrary, Cedar stacks the deck. Not long after the ceremony, Eliezer gets a shocking phone call announcing that he's won the coveted Israel Prize. The award gives the old codger a new lease on life, not least because his greatest accomplishment to date has been a throwaway footnote in a mentor's manuscript, and because he's lost the same prize for the past 16 years running--his academic reputation stalled since his esoteric master project was scooped and beaten to the punch by a competitor, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who now sits on the award committee. The problem is, the prize was intended not for the father but for the son, as the letter that lands in Uriel's mailbox soon attests. Cedar stages a brilliant set-piece in a cramped office, where the committee lays out the repercussions of this clerical error to a devastated Uriel, who knows, without a doubt, that disclosing the mistake would effectively kill his father. New entrants climb over and under the table in their ill-fitting blazers, sweating through a tense meeting of minds that's centred, as Uriel points out in his father's favour, on a "small thing"--the giving of a prize. But whatever his father's reaction might be, Uriel knows this isn't entirely true: Talmud scholars, as Footnote repeatedly points out, are people who base their lives on particular details--no one more so than the rigorous and still-oblivious Eliezer, now left in the hands of the son he's washed his own hands of.
When it's focused on such impossible ethical dilemmas, Footnote is an uncommonly absorbing look at a subject you'd think would be uncinematic. It's a shame that Cedar surrenders as often as he does to a competing inner voice that says this material can only be sold as farce, in the quirky tradition of foreign crossover hits like Amélie. This January, Kim Novak went nuclear on The Artist for (knowingly) cribbing a portion of Bernard Hermann's score from Vertigo; she should have saved her energy for Footnote's more covert and altogether less successful Hermann homage, which ill-advisedly recalls Hitchcock when the film's voluble screenplay is much closer to the work of someone like Cronenberg. That's odd enough, but the frequent chapter headings and scheduled time-outs for bits of trivia are just insulting: it's as if a CNN news ticker has invaded a university lecture. Intended to make the film more fun, these aesthetic quirks aren't worthy of either character or the probing, smartly-drawn script that houses them.-Angelo Muredda
originally published March 23, 2012