Sony Pictures Classics
Review by: Harvey Karten
Director: Joseph Cedar
Screenwriter: Joseph Cedar
Cast: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Amiza Rosen, Micah Lewesohn, Alma Zack, Daniel Markovich, Yuval Scharf, Nevo Kimchi
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/3/12
Opens: March 9, 2012
When Abraham seemed all-too-ready to sacrifice his son Isaac per heavenly command, we note that if he were living in our own modern times, he would be jailed for child abuse and not considered a hero for obeying the Almighty. Subjecting the intended sacrifice to free interpretation, we might conclude that the relationships of fathers to sons–especially given the updated work by Sigmund Freud–is not entirely beatific. While there is no mention in Genesis of whether Isaac felt enraged by his dad’s willingness to sacrifice him, one might fantasy that he would think of ways to get back at the old man, an anger, one reciprocated by the father, that fuels the wonderful Israeli film “Footnote.”
Cedar directs the opening scene of the movie in a static style, spending upwards of five minutes concentrating Yaron Scharf’s camera on the audience attending the awarding of yet another prize to Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), a professor of Talmudic studies at Hebrew University. The camera focuses on Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), whose dour, far-away expressions signal to us that the man is wrapped up in himself, or constipated: choose one or both. Eliezer never cracks a smile; people irritate him–as when one obese woman later passes his seat or when a TV crew affixing make-up get him so riled that he bolts from the studio.
Uriel, a middle-aged, overweight, pompous, full-bearded lecturer and researcher who wears a yarmelka or takes it off as though the kippah were a fashion accessory, loves the spotlight. He is reportedly adored by his students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and wins prizes with some regularity. By contrast, his father Eliezer sees himself primarily as a researcher, having spent a couple of decades studying the Talmud, finally aglow that he can publish an eye-opener, a fresh look at its meaning. However his life’s studies are destroyed when another professor, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn)–who has enough wrinkles to remind one of a Shar-pei–publishes ahead of Eliezer.
The conflict occurs when by a clerical error, Eliezer is told that for the first time in his life he will be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize when, in fact, the prize is meant for his son Uriel. Uriel is called into a meeting in a small room with Grossman and others, ordered to tell his father than he, Uriel, is the recipient. Uriel protests that the news would kill his dad and begs the committee to allow Eliezer to receive the award, however meretricious. Grossman, who chairs the committee, is no friend of Eliezer and refuses to allow the prize to go to the old man.
Cedar studied philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and film at NYU, getting a name from directing “Beaufort,” about a 22-year-old Israeli soldier mentally who disintegrates during a withdrawal from Lebanon. With “Footnote” he provides graphic evidence that Jews are people of the book. There are books everyone, seeming to multiply like bunnies in the homes of the principal characters and at the National Library of Jerusalem. There are papers and folders, manuscripts and envelopes everywhere. If this appears to you an unlikely source to develop the movie’s themes, you’d be wrong. Cedar is visually adept, punctuating the film with swiftly-edited montages illustrating backgrounds of the principals, especially the scholarship they invoke in their study of the Talmud, the sacred volumes of oral law and Bible exegeses.
With Amit Poznansky’s soundtrack alternating between Hitchcockian music and frothy beats, the two themes seeming to change suddenly, the stage is set for suspense with a satirical dimension aimed at showing academic infighting that is as much a factor in Israel as it is in America. Will Uriel risk enraging his dad by telling him the bad news? Strange to say, this conflict over a remote scholarly endeavor provides as much tension in the audience as would a thriller with Uzis and exploding cars.
“Footnote” emerged as one of the five finalists for the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture of 2011. Though it will have a difficult time edging out Iran’s entry, “A Separation,” we can see how this exposé of father-son rivalry rose to the top of the list.
Rated PG. 103 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+