One of the nominees for the most recent Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote takes an ingenious idea and crafts a moving and funny movie about fathers and sons and integrity. Set in the world of Talmudic scholars, it also highlights the pedantry and autocraticism of academia, which is always ripe for satire. The film, unfortunately, peters out at the end, perhaps from a failure of nerve by the director.
Uriel Shkolnick (Lior Ashkenazi) is a popular professor at Hebrew University. As the film opens, he is being inducted into the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences. His father, Eliezer, (Shlomo Bar’Aba) looks on dourly, even when Uriel pays tribute to him during his speech. The reason–Uriel has outpaced his father’s achievements. Both are Talmudic scholars, but Eliezer is not well respected. He spent 30 years working on a theory but was trumped by his rival (Micah Lewenson). In his old age, he is bitter and antisocial.
Therefore he is surprised to learn that he has earned the Israel Prize, which he has longed for but was passed over for 20 years. He is elated. But the next day Uriel is called to an emergency meeting of the award committee: he has actually won the prize, and someone called his father by mistake.
This sets off an intriguing series of events–what to do about the prize? The committee wants to revoke it from the elder, but Uriel understands this may literally kill him. And to boot, that it would go to the son would poison their relationship forever. A compromise is struck, even though the old man reveals he has little respect for his son’s scholarship.
All of this is presented intelligently–I didn’t find a character acting in any way that isn’t organic, instead of just serving the script. It would make for great after-theater conversation: what would you do? It’s also at times drolly farcical–at one point Uriel spies on his father while dressed in fencing togs, and the pivotal meeting of the awards committee is held in a small, cramped room, and everyone has to move when someone brings a chair in, which brilliantly alleviates the crackling tension of the scene with comedy.
But as the climax of the movie approaches, I was ultimately let down. The film drags to its conclusion, and then leaves the viewer hanging. I suppose Cedar intended us to make up our own minds about what happens, somewhat like John Sayles did in Limbo, but my reptilian brain demands a resolution. For that reason, I drop Footnote one-half grade.
Still, this will be in the running for my best of the year and I enjoyed it a great deal. The performances are all top notch.
My grade for Footnote: A-.