The Stuff of Life in Bitter Marginalia
‘Footnote,’ a Satire and Family Drama by Joseph Cedar
NYT Critics’ Pick
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: March 8, 2012
It is a truism that academic arguments are so passionate because the stakes are so small. “Footnote,” a wonderful new film from the American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar, at once affirms this conventional wisdom and calls it into question. The movie’s very title suggests that its concerns are marginal, esoteric, even trivial. A summary of the story — an abstract, as it might be called in a learned journal — would barely rise to the level of anecdote. A prestigious award, intended for one scholar, is mistakenly bestowed on another. Trouble ensues.
Ego and Envy, So It Is Written
By KRISTIN HOHENADEL
Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” is a tragicomic tale of rivalry.
This kind of mix-up might raise an eyebrow or a chuckle in the faculty lounge, but surely the rest of us have more important things to worry about than the wounded vanity of intellectuals. The genius of “Footnote” is that it is about those important things too. Deftly turning the law of inverse proportions on its head Mr. Cedar spins a committee-room squabble into something authentically grand: a piercing satire, a poignant family drama and an investigation of the competing claims of honesty, loyalty, ambition and love. Really, the stakes could hardly be higher.
But the director, whose previous work includes the brutal, anxious war movie “Beaufort” (like “Footnote,” an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film), handles heavy themes with a light touch. He uses jaunty music (the score is by Amit Poznansky), printed chapter titles, and witty forays into memory and fantasy to emphasize the absurdity of this odd little tale, allowing the precision of his writing and the discipline of the actors to reveal its essential gravity.
The rival scholars, both experts in the highly specialized, deeply competitive field of Talmudic studies, happen to be father and son. Eliezer Shkolnik, the father, is a philologist of the old school, devoting himself to the close textual analysis of manuscripts and hewing to a rigorously scientific idea of their meaning. In his carrel at the Hebrew University library in Jerusalem and in his study at home (where he wears headphones to block out the distractions of the world) he brushes the finest grain of sacred writings, hoping to sift out tiny and therefore solid truths. Everything else is not just commentary, but worse: superstition, gossip, theory, aesthetics — the very antithesis of real scholarship.
What Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) sees as irresponsible, airy speculation happens to be the specialty of his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), an academic star with a shelf full of books and articles on his curriculum vitae and a busy schedule of public lectures. As Eliezer toils in obscurity, Uriel, an eminent professor at the same university, basks in acclaim — an awkward situation made more so by Eliezer’s longstanding sense of having been neglected and undermined. Early in his career a significant discovery that might have made his name was upstaged by his nemesis, a certain Professor Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who Eliezer believes has blocked his progress ever since. The only achievement he can hold onto is a footnote in one of his long-dead mentor’s books, in which Eliezer is credited by name with a small insight that everyone else has since forgotten.
To the injury of Uriel’s glory is added the insult that Eliezer, as a good Jewish father, is expected to take pride in it. And when the winners of Israel’s most coveted prize in the arts and sciences are announced, the fraught relations between father and son erupt into an intergenerational tzimmes worthy of Shakespeare, Freud or the more melodramatic portions of the Hebrew Bible. It plays as farce, but the chords of family tragedy resonate underneath the laughter.
Though the film is dominated by the clash of male egos, it also takes subtle account of the part played by Uriel’s mother, Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), and his wife, Dikla (Alma Zak). “Footnote” is at least as interested in what it means to live with an important (or self-important) scholar as in what it means to be one, and if you watch closely you can discern another of Mr. Cedar’s clever reversals of emphasis.
With respect to many of its laws and traditions, Judaism may be profoundly patriarchal — for thousands of years the study of its crucial texts was restricted to men — but it is also matrilineal, meaning that Jewish identity, whatever that might be, is passed down through the maternal line. This chronicle of fathers and sons is equally, perhaps primarily, a story about mothers.
It is also, and not incidentally, one of the most accurate depictions I have ever seen of the peculiar mores and rituals of academe. Among the many memorable scenes — which include moments of high farce, agonized confrontation and linguistic sleuthing — the one I found most remarkable is a tense conclave around a table in a departmental office. The participants are squeezed around a too-small table, hemmed in by books and papers that threaten to bury them. Tempers fray and flare until the situation resembles a literal enactment of a line from William Butler Yeats: “Great hatred, little room.”
Yeats was thinking of Ireland, but it would be hard to come up with a better four-word description of Israel and its surroundings. And while the overwhelming, exhausting political questions that dominate most films from Israel (including “Beaufort”) are not addressed in “Footnote,” they are not exactly avoided either. Whatever schisms and contradictions afflict the Jewish state — feel free to make your own list — are somehow implicit in the primal divide within the Shkolnik family.
Resolution is unlikely, which may or may not be cause for optimism. Academic life and family life are both built on love — the love of learning, the love of other people — but they survive on contention, renewing and extending quarrels from one generation to the next. Interpretation begets interpretation, and a father’s mistakes are corrected by the errors of his children. There is no reason to suppose, or to hope, that this will end. The substance of human existence is argument, and each of us has a footnote to contribute.
“Footnote” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Angry words and grown-up situations.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Joseph Cedar; director of photography, Yaron Scharf; edited by Einat Glaser Zarhin; music by Amit Poznansky; production design by Arad Sawat; costumes by Laura Sheim; produced by David Mandil, Moshe Edery and Leon Edery; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Shlomo Bar Aba (Eliezer Shkolnik), Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel Shkolnik), Alisa Rosen (Yehudit Shkolnik), Alma Zak (Dikla Shkolnik), Daniel Markovich (Josh Shkolnik), Micah Lewensohn (Yehuda Grossman), Yuval Scharf (Noa) and Nevo Kimchi (Yair Fingerhut).