Father-son academic rivals face off in wry, yet perceptive ‘Footnote’
History and literature are full of fraught relationships between fathers and sons—from Kronos and Zeus to Darth Vader and Luke. Somewhat less epic is the father-son friction between rival Talmudic scholars at the heart of Footnote, an offbeat Israeli comedic drama about family, ambition, and recognition within the cloistered realms of Academia. Written and directed by American-born Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, the film toddles along at its own measured pace, yet becomes engrossing as the moral dilemma at its core shapes up. The film’s wry humanity earned it a Foreign Language Oscar nomination this year.
Professor Eliezel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has devoted his life to studying and researching ancient Talmudic texts from his office in the basement of the library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A small, grey-haired, gnomey character, uncomfortable with social situations and idle chat, he believes in the thorough and meticulous research to which he’s devoted his life. In his home office, he straps on a pair of yellow headphones (they don’t provide music, just silence) so he can continue to work into the night insulated from the distractions of life, or his neglected, but loyal wife.
His son, Professor Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is his polar opposite. A big, shaggy, bearded bear of a man who plays a cutthroat game of racquetball, Uriel is a celebrity lecturer at the university who has written several popular books on Talmudic studies, history, and culture. An effective schmoozer, Uriel knows how to play the game, charming his students and colleagues, and racking up academic honors—despite methods his father believes are not thorough or exhaustive enough. He and his savvy wife, Dikla (Alma Zack) have even produced a large, telegenic family.
The contrast between the two men is especially pronounced on the night Uriel is inducted into the National Academy of Science—a prestigious honor that has never been bestowed on his father. Indeed, Eliezel spends a lot of time grumping about favoritism, the cult of personality over achievement, and lax standards in the awarding of academic recognitions. We soon learn that he spent 30 years painstakingly recreating a lost text, only to be one-upped before he could publish it by a rival scholar who accidentally stumbled upon the ancient manuscript itself—rendering Eliezel’s “life’s work” superfluous. Otherwise, his greatest professional achievement is that he was once cited in a footnote in a book by a much more famous scholar.
Nevertheless, self-imposed “outsider” Eliezel continues to submit his name to the selection committee for the coveted Israel Prize every year. When he receives a phone call saying he’s been chosen, events are set in motion that will test the mettle of both father and son, as each man confronts what he holds dearest, and what he is—or is not—willing to do or to sacrifice in pursuit of his dreams.
Cedar spins his tale with plenty of cinematic flourishes: droll subtitles (“The Worst Day in the Life of Prof. Shkolnik…”), Klezmer music used in an antic, comic way, even the occasional shameless referencing of Fiddler On The Roof. But beneath these jokey touches, Cedar supplies smart, shifting perspectives on both men. Dikla surprises Uriel with the thoughtful observation that his father is courageously “true to himself” while Uriel is more of a “coward,” a “nice guy who wants to avoid confrontation.”
Yet, while another colleague jokes that Uriel “expects a sort of constant, mild flattery,” it’s Uriel who insists most doggedly on doing the right thing. In two sharply drawn parallel scenes, Eliezel, trying to explain his work to an interviewer, and Uriel, trying to write a letter celebrating his father’s achievements, both arrive at the same stark conclusion. It’s what each man does with this knowledge and how it affects their evolving dynamic that keeps the audience engaged. (And kudos to Cedar for not wrapping it all up too neatly.) The fate of the world may not hang in the balance, but even tiny increments of empathy count for much in this fractured family tale.
★★★ (out of four)
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With Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG. 103 minutes. In Hebrew with English subtitles.