The world of academia, especially those out-of-the way areas with few students, can seem Byzantine to the extreme. When you take that, then add to it years of professional resentment, then a layer of family feud and you get the baklava that is Israel’s dark, dark, darkly comic entry to the Academy Awards, Footnote.
The action of the movie is centered on the Talmudic studies department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the relationship between father and son professors Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik. Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has been working tirelessly, without recognition, save for the title mark in a book by his mentor, the founder of the department, Yaacov Nachum Epstein. He’s been focused on untangling some of the most tedious of mysteries, focusing on changes in the translations Talmudic scholars have been studying for a millennium. His son (Lior Ashkenazi) is much better known throughout Israel, more accessible to the general public and accepted by the establishment. His lectures get attended by pretty co-eds interested in journalism and art history, his father goes through a prepared slide show in a large lecture hall for an audience of one. But it’s clear the son recognizes and appreciates – perhaps more than anyone – the work his father has put in, and the gap in the recognition their work receives has driven between them.
Screenwriter and director Joseph Cedar (the screenplay won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival) deftly plays with the focus of the film in it’s three acts, subtly shifting the focus from the father to the son, then back, as the audience begins to see how the two view each other, and just how much Eliezer’s years of hermit-like study have alienated him from the establishment and his son. As the movie opens, Uriel is being inducted into a prestigious society Ezekiel will never join, the focus remains on the father, even as Uriel delivers a speech intended to both humanize and honor his father. Through some Coens-like comic interludes, the audience comes to sympathize with this man, who has, after all, done things the right way. Then, subtly, the focus shifts to Uriel, as the audience begins to get a sense of just why his father’s been held back, and just what kinds of pressures the younger man feels, both as a scholar himself and as a father and in what he sees as the obligations he has to see his father recognized for his life’s work. Later, as the focus shifts back to Eliezer, the damage of his years on the outside have done to both his relationship with his son and his scholarship come out in very stark terms, even as Cedar provides a look at the parallel lives the two men may be coming to lead.
The comic bits – and despite the seeming dryness of the material, they are there – do work, especially in the first third of the film. But don’t expect a laugh riot. There are a good many jokes that likely won’t work for many American audiences, as Footnote is not just very Jewish but very Israeli in particular. But there’s enough universality in most of the jokes that they still hit their mark.
There are some issues with the film. For many, the ending of the film will be tremendously frustrating, as it is somewhat abrupt. In addition, there are a number of plotlines that would seemingly be important for our understanding of the relationship between the two, and for why Eliezer has seemingly been held back. A rivalry with the head of the department is only broached by the son and never explained. A feint at a plotline involving possible adultery is abandoned without any payoff. And, despite an interesting development near the end of the film, there isn’t a payoff there either, due to the abruptness of the ending.
But this is a well-made and worthy film. It will probably take more than one viewing to take in entirely, as you’ll probably see more and more with each viewing. It has its issues, and you may well be angry as you walk out of the theater. But take some time to stew on this, to think it over as you go to sleep. You’ll find something worth seeking out.