Footnote speaks volumes. Intensely specific in story yet wide-ranging in themes, with a tone that turns on a dime from comic absurdity to close to tragedy, this is brainy, bravura filmmaking of the highest level, a motion picture that is as difficult to pigeonhole as it is a pleasure to enjoy.
The fourth work by writer-director Joseph Cedar, Israel’s most accomplished filmmaker, Footnote has not lacked for recognition. It took the screenplay award at Cannes, won nine Israeli Oscars (including picture, script and direction for Cedar, plus a pair of acting awards) and, like Cedar’s last film, 2007’s Beaufort, was one of the five nominees for the foreign-language film Oscar. All despite subject matter that could not sound more unlikely and even obscure.
Set in the spirited precincts of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Footnote deals with the implacable rivalry between two scholars of the Talmud, the complex and sacred key text of the Jewish religious tradition. These competitive scholars, the misanthropic Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and the gregarious Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), happen to be the Shkolniks, father and son.
“Talmud is known for being the smallest and toughest department at the university,” filmmaker Cedar, whose own father is a celebrated Hebrew U. scientist, said at Cannes. “These are people who have dedicated their lives to something esoteric, and they’ve done it with the drive of Julius Caesar.”
Cedar’s particular gift is to have found a way to make the infighting and the rivalries of wide interest in and of itself and also one capable of speaking easily to larger issues. Footnote’s nominally miniature canvas turns out to encompass with casual grace such themes as the price of ambition, the need for recognition and the perhaps inevitable tension between fathers and sons.
These conflicts are not all that make Footnote so stimulating. The inventive, playfully cinematic ways Cedar presents the drama — like using unspooling microfilm as a recurring visual theme — are essential in keeping us involved.
The film’s opening segments, daringly set to music reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Alfred Hitchcock thriller scores (Amit Poznansky did the music), skillfully present many of the plot elements that will play out unexpectedly as the story progresses.
After the words “The most difficult day in the life of Professor Shkolnik” appear on the screen, we immediately see an older academic-looking man, presumably the individual in question, and a voice-over listing extensive and impressive professorial credits: international recognition, nine books written, dozens of papers, the respect of his peers, etc.
Only gradually does it fully register that, though it is father Eliezer Shkolnik we are looking at, the voice is extolling the virtues of his son Uriel, and it is the father’s difficult day because seeing that son getting inducted into the Israeli National Academy of Science — an honor he himself has not received — is eating him alive. It’s simply the first of many of Footnote’s delicious reverses.
At this point, quickly and with considerable visual flair, Footnote fills us in on the background of both Shkolniks, starting with father Eliezer, a scholar of fierce and almost terrifying integrity. He’s a philologist, a close textual researcher into language, who spent more than 30 years painstakingly analyzing versions of the Jerusalem Talmud only to have rival scholar Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn, with a forehead furrowed like Death Valley) beat him to publication because of a random act of fate.
The pride of Eliezer’s life is a footnote dedicated to him in a monumental analysis of the Talmud by the legendary P. Feinstein, making him the only living person mentioned by name among thousands of notes. (In one of the film’s many real-life correlations, there is apparently such a footnote in a book by Y.N. Epstein, the father of modern Talmudic scholarship.)
If Eliezer is a fussy minimalist, son Uriel sees the big picture. Beautifully played by Israeli star Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, Walk on Water), who grew an impressive beard for the part, Uriel is a born schmoozer who writes expansively and conceptually on what the Talmud might mean without worrying overly much about the specific words, an approach that is anathema to his father.
Uriel is a difficult man in his own way — he likes telling students that their work has things in it that are new and correct, “only the new things are not correct and the correct things are not new” — but, in conversations with his wife, Dikla (Alma Zak), and his long-suffering mother, Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), it’s clear that he cares more about the father-son relationship than the older man does.
Though both actors won Israeli Academy Awards for their work, Footnote is impossible to imagine without Bar Aba’s fearless performance as the cantankerous born contrarian Eliezer. Primarily a stage and television actor known for antic comedy, Bar Aba is marvelous as a man who holds it all inside, conveying considerable subtleties of emotion through an expression that on the surface appears never to change.
With all this information as back story, Footnote kicks into gear when it is shockingly announced that the unsmiling Eliezer, of all people, has won the highly coveted Israel Prize, the country’s top academic honor.
Uriel is just beginning to get used to what that means when, in a brilliant scene that initially echoes the claustrophobic humor of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, comedy and tragedy fatally intertwine in a way that feels classically Jewish and completely new. Amusing and disturbing in equal measure, Footnote does more than ask the provocative question “what is more important than truth,” it attempts to answer it as well.
Cast: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Aliza Rosen.
Writer/director: Joseph Cedar.
Producers: Joseph Cedar, Leon Edery, Moshe Edery, David Mandil.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 105 minutes. Thematic elements, brief nudity, language, smoking. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: Tower; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.