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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Footnote (2011)

* * * *

Director: Joseph Cedar
Starring: Schlomo Bar'aba, Lior Ashkenazi

The father and son at the center of Joseph Cedar's Footnote are both scholars of the Talmud, men who have read the text forwards and backwards and know its lessons, and yet, when confronted with real moral dilemmas in their own lives, have no idea how to proceed. Although it becomes a drama in its finale, for much of its running time it proceeds with the fleetness and lightness of touch of a comedy, the tonal shift occurring gradually rather than with jarring sharpness. Although its subject matter may sound impossibly specific, concerning as it does the cloistered world of academia, and maybe even boring, Footnote is anything but. It's an often delightful, sometimes moving, and highly entertaining film.

Footnote is about Eliezer Schkolnik (Schlomo Bar'aba) and his son, Uriel Schkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), both of whom are professors of Talmudic research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As an academic, Eliezer has received little attention, choosing to zero in on one very specific thing for decades, painstakingly pouring over data and evidence for what he anticipates will be a major work while his colleagues publish paper after paper and book after book. When Eliezer finally does finish his grand opus, his efforts are undercut by his rival, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who by chance comes across a text which proves the thesis of Eliezer's research, and then publishes his findings first, rendering Eliezer's book obsolete. Dismayed, Eliezer has sunk into the shadows, unappreciated except by a select group of colleagues, and watching with intense jealousy as other scholars, most of whom he deems unworthy, are showered with praise and awards. Uriel, meanwhile, is charismatic and popular, deferred to by many of his colleagues and already having gained more official recognition than his father has. Eliezer believes that Uriel's work is superficial and lacking in the discipline of hard, uncompromising research. Uriel believes that Eliezer is an angry man incapable of even the most basic understanding of how to engage with people. Both might be right.

Every year Eliezer is submitted for consideration for the Israel Prize and grows increasingly bitter as he watches lesser academics lay claim to it. This year, however, he receives a phone call from the Minister of Education informing him that he has won. He's elated (well, as elated as a man as closed off emotionally as he is can get) and finally feels a sense of belonging in the world of academia which has so far shunned him so thoroughly. The only problem is that there was a mix-up at the Minister's office and it's actually Uriel who has won the prize. The committee, headed by Grossman, summons Uriel to explain the situation and to elect him to be the one to break it to his father. Uriel refuses and makes a passionate argument in favor of his father being awarded the prize, openly accusing Grossman of having sabotaged Eliezer's career at every possible turn. Although he remains steadfast at first, Grossman eventually relents to the notion of allowing Eliezer to have the prize on two conditions: first, Uriel must be the one to write the committee's recommendation; second, Uriel must agree that he will never allow himself to be submitted for the prize ever again. Uriel agrees and a funny thing happens: while writing the recommendation (and struggling to come up with reasons to justify the recipient), he seems to realize that, objectively speaking, his father's contributions to the study have perhaps not been so great; and then Eliezer gives an interview in which he completely cuts Uriel down as a scholar. The son has sacrificed for the father and, in return, the father has desecrated the son - but that's not quite the end of the story.

The relationship between the father and the son is fraught, which Cedar demonstrates from the opening of Footnote as a stone-faced Eliezer sits in the audience while Uriel delivers a speech, part of which is an anecdote about his father. The story is delivered lightly and with seeming affection, but the joke is ultimately on Eliezer and his eccentric tendencies, and his reaction as the audience around him laughs shows just how deeply alienated he is. Within the academic community, Eliezer is the "weird" professor who has wasted decades on a project which no longer matters, and by telling this particular story, it's as if Uriel - who, as becomes apparent as the film carries on, has never enjoyed his father's respect as an academic - is rubbing his success in his father's face. When Eliezer later gives the interview as the supposed winner of the Israel Prize, he returns the favor by saying quite publicly what he thinks of Uriel's work. Unable to bring himself to hurt his father by revealing the truth about the Prize, Uriel instead seethes with rage, letting it build up until he explodes - taking it out not on his father, but on his teenage son, savagely informing him that should be continue to be shiftless, Uriel will soon find himself actively rooting for his failure. It's a moment of breathtaking cruelty on Uriel's part, but it says a lot about his relationship with his own father. He can claim to be the dominant figure within academic circles, but at the end of the day the praise he really wants is from Eliezer and, to his endless frustration, that's always going to be just out of reach.

The subject matter of Footnote could be impossibly dry, but Cedar renders it with many little flourishes which, along with its quick pace, help make it very engaging. Although there are threads of darkness woven in from the beginning, the lighter tone dominates the early part of the film, only gradually giving way to the more serious undercurrents as the situation between Elizer and Uriel becomes increasingly impossible. In the leading roles, Bar'aba and Ashkenazi expertly make the shift in tone and bring an incredible amount of nuance and depth to their characters and the relationship between the two men. Although Bar'aba hardly seems to say anything at all through the course of the film, his performance is ultimately the one that dominates the proceedings, his long, hard silences expressing more than pages of dialogue ever could. Footnote ends on a note of excruciating ambiguity, as the efforts of the son to bring the father peace has instead resulted in torment for them both. The question of how the situation is resolved is ultimately left in play, but the film is only stronger for it. After all, it was never really about how the situation could be resolved - it was about these two men bound by blood, but ruined by it as well.

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