Footnote (2011, Joseph Cedar)
The events of Footnote unfold in an environment unfamiliar to the vast majority of those seeing it, and not merely because it’s an Israeli comedy-drama that’s become a modest hit in America. Specifically, its two lead characters’ concern is the archaic matter of Talmud scholarship — but you needn’t fear if such things are even conceptually far beyond your grasp. Because one thing a far greater number of us know is the feeling of gritting your teeth and grinning vacantly through some undesired family gathering or interaction. The unsentimental attachment of grudgingly accepted (and given) love, and the corresponding willful estrangement of so many of us in our dysfunctional lives — that’s the story of Footnote. Unusually and significantly, it fails to cast these communication lapses as a crisis or a measure of a personal flaw. It’s a profoundly even-handed film about the way things simply are, and the consequences. And as a sort of extra gift, it’s also extremely funny.
Professor Eliezer Shkolnik’s life’s work was the mapping and comparison of alternative Talmudic texts to make a discovery that was circumvented by a rival. Now, his son Uriel has become another such rival, and his work — seen by his father as classless and empty — has become the subject of much praise and adulation; we meet him as he accepts an award brimming with confident egotism as his father grouses darkly in the audience. The subtle, typically indirect combat between the two of them, the messily shaky ground on which their relationship stands, will be altered permanently when it’s announced that Eliezer will receive recognition at last with the reception of the prestigious annual Israel Prize; his son had continued to quietly submit him for consideration every year. For the first time, Eliezer walks his zigzagging daily path to the research library with a bounce in his step — but something has gone wrong, for it is to be revealed at a drab conference table to Uriel that the honor was meant for him. Negotiations, secrets, harsh words, detective work, obstructive chairs, inquisitive journalists, and motherly trust will all figure into the clusterfuck that follows — a comedy of errors that ever slowly becomes something much sadder.
Unusually for a satire, Footnote is one of the most steadfastly objective films of recent years, something it achieves through a cumulative collection of small empathies. We initially see Uriel through his father’s eyes — cocky, schmoozing, ungrateful and over-talkative. When Eliezer has a dreadful run-in with security at an event in his son’s honor and then stubbornly insists on walking home, we feel his bitterness, however much we chuckle at it. Then as we come to Uriel, he slides with equal ease into our focus as a well-meaning, good man who loves his wife and is good at what he does, and wishes the best things for his father and the other members of his family. They even share a common enemy in the form of smug scholar Grossman, a self-regarding, leering blackmailer. Yet the film’s criss-cross structure brilliantly embodies the fences that arise in familial relations, especially those of parents and children — whatever these men are in sum total, each can never see the other for the man he truly is. Uriel comes to regard his father — after the latter gives an incendiary interview to a newspaper that involves some cold words for his offspring’s work — as a pest undeserving of the trouble he goes to in order to ensure that, despite everything, he will receive the award he thought was his. At the finale, after all is quietly known, Uriel’s exhaustion and Eliezer’s barely restrained outpouring say everything. The upshot is that in both of these men, we recognize ourselves, as many leagues away as we may be from the outwardly petty and intellectually charged world they may inhabit. The most painful emotions coalesce in all areas of life, have or have-not or whatever in between, which is just the point.
New York-born writer-director Joseph Cedar has a keen eye and ear for the hallways and selective establishments of the few, and he scores on two counts, by both acknowledging the rich importance of the place the work of these men holds in their lives, and by softly jabbing its utter low-stakes frivolity. As Uriel himself cries out in one scene in which he’s battling for his father to remain as the honoree, it’s just a prize, it doesn’t need to be taken so seriously — yet here he is, fighting for it. The film is full of such perceptive moments, and is perhaps the most effective, concise and knowing satire of academia since Wonder Boys wonderfully tackled the American literary elite twelve years ago. Cedar’s smart enough to recognize the earth-shaking significance of all these elevated details and carefully chosen pathways in his characters’ lives, while undercutting them with ample humor and sorrow — the awareness of all the oh-so-serious agonizing over the Israel Prize and Talmud mapping as a mark of privilege, put forth as a mild poke without trivializing it all, and certainly without trivializing the investment of the parent and child, Eliezer in particular. Cedar focuses on what’s universal without undercutting any of his sardonic attacks.
Though some will find the Wes Anderson-like expository flourishes early in the film rather distracting, they are a handy way of quickly breezing through character biography without clunky dialogue, and serve to add some visual firepower to what could have been a rather arid cinematic experience. The comedy, though, is tremendously effective; the sequence involving the juggling of foldout chairs in a tiny room is absurdist slapstick pointing and laughing at worldwide notions of self-satisfied dignity, like something Blake Edwards would’ve done cheerfully in his best years. The film stabs so effectively with wit for so long that you scarcely notice it when the pathos begins to take over, and by the time it washes over in the final shot, it can actually blindside you a bit. Which isn’t to say that the affectionate ridiculing of intrusive stage direction and mawkish makeup design in the second half — as Eliezer makes the rounds of National Importance and prepares to accept “his” award — aren’t plenty amusing.
But the climax comes earlier in each of these two stories the film provides us. For Uriel, it’s that familiar feeling of knowing something and being about to burst with it, and then being unable to contain yourself when a person you’re protecting turns fervently against you. He whispers to his mother at a Fiddler on the Roof performance that the award was meant for him, and the feeling of pregnancy on the drive home is broken only by his father’s giddy singing. But Eliezer’s plight speaks to a darker truth in an effective but brief injection of mystery thriller-like theatrics — his years of careful study and comparison of ancient writing and familiarity with the depths of language and style provide him with the means to discover just what has happened, by analyzing his son’s writing and comparing it to the official accolade that arrived in his mailbox. His eyes that had lit up for what seemed like first time not so long ago suddenly begin to sink.
Cedar has assembled a superb cast here. The only way to put it is that Lior Ashkenazi is splendid as Uriel, a truly adult and sophisticated role, but Shlomo Bar-Aba, for years a TV personality in Israel, is heartbreaking as the tightly-would, well-contained, midlly autistic Eliezer — as emotional a portrayal of a stubbornly unemotional man as I’ve ever seen. It’s because of the actors as much as the writing and direction that, by the end of the film, we don’t feel the crush of the insular nature of this subject matter. What we get is, in the classical sense of the terminal gulf between a father and son, a whiff of highest, most overwhelming tragedy.