Footnote – 3 Buckets
Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, a splendid dark comedy nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, represents a true rarity — a movie about what it means to be a male, where sexuality doesn’t enter the equation. Instead, the focus is on the sense of competitiveness that defines the gender — man’s desire not simply to accomplish, but to be singled out from his brethren for the accomplishment. Cedar expresses this central theme through a father/son dynamic — perhaps the most competitive of all.
Father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) Schkolnik are both experts on the Talmud, but their attitudes toward scholarship could not be more different. The younger writes popular books based on a liberal understanding of the holy text, whereas the elder scoffs at such an approach, painstakingly studying the intricate differences between each version. On what the film tells us is the happiest day of his life, Eliezer is informed that he has won the prestigious Israel Prize, an honor he has worked toward for decades. But there is a big problem: the award was actually supposed to go to Uriel, who has no idea what to do when the committee explains to him that a clerical error caused the mishap, for his father’s entire livelihood depends upon academic recognition.
The film is filled with humorous ironies, all of which are taken with grave seriousness by the characters. (Many critics have rightfully compared the film to the Coen Bros’ A Serious Man in terms of the way it fuses dark comedy with Judaic sensibilities.) For instance, there is the fact that Eliezer’s entire existence seems to be affirmed by his winning the Prize, even though he long spoke out about its waning legitimacy (largely because he had been beat out by competing scholars). Few emotions are more distinctly masculine than Eliezer’s doubtless belief that he is the individual who should be recognized, and writer/director Cedar both works to understand the instinctual nature of this impulse and to poke fun at its absurdity. Even more amusing is Uriel’s inability to decide how to handle the committee’s error–should he convince them to let his dad have the Prize?–despite the fact that he has spent his professional life studying the Talmud, which deals precisely with ethical dilemmas.
Further, Footnote satirizes academia itself. Eliezer and Uriel’s absolutist desires for attention and recognition may be a product of their gender, but the construct of the Israel Prize speaks to much larger issues: Of what significance is such an invention? What level of academic objectivity can a committee achieve? Isn’t academia one big excuse for self-congratulation? The film’s title alludes to the fact that Eliezer’s most noted accomplishment was receiving a footnote in a prominent scholarly article and asks the viewer whether this is really a legitimate way to measure a man.
Footnote is technically no-frills and could just as easily be a play, but the filmmaking is handsome. Cedar shoots in long-take close-ups that focus on the great facial nuance in the lead performances of Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi. There isn’t a lot of plot, but you’ll barely notice — it is a delightful experience to simply get wrapped up in the characters and their motivations, and to cackle at the farce of it all.
* * *
Footnote (2012, Israel). Produced by Joseph Cedar, Leon Edery, Moshe Edery, Michal Graidy, Tamir Kfir, and David Mandil. Directed and written for the screen by Joseph Cedar. Starring Lior Ashkenazi, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Yuval Scharf, Edna Blilious, Aliza Rosen, and Alma Zack. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Rated PG, with a running time of 103 minutes.