Though Joseph Cedar’s Footnote (original title Hearat Shulayim) is a look at the Israeli academic community’s insularity and hubris, the problems it raises are universal and the film could most likely take place anywhere in the world. One of five nominated films at this year’s Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category, Footnote allows us to take a peek behind the hallowed walls of academia and it is not a pretty sight. With its exposure of political maneuvering, egotism, ambition, and tightly controlled orthodoxy, the film makes clear its point of view that professors who are out of the mainstream are marginalized and passed over for recognition by their peers.
The film centers on Eliezer Shkolnik (Schlomo Bar Aba), an aging Talmudic scholar and philologist, who has become a bitter and aggrieved man after having been passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize for twenty years. Eliezer arrogantly denounces the selection committee for the Prize as people who have forgotten the meaning of true scholarship. He has spent his career researching corrupted Jewish texts that deviate from the original Talmud, but whose only recognition has been a citation in a footnote.
Ill at ease in the hallowed walls of academia and in relationships in general, Eliezer sleeps in his office and only ventures out to go to the library. He continues to schedule classes even though as little as one or two people enroll. His relationship with his wife Yehudit (Alisa Rosen) appears strained and distant and, when he is at home, he blocks out the world by putting on gigantic yellow earphones. His behavior is contrasted with that of his more sociable and outgoing son, the bearded Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) who is also a Talmudic scholar but one whose work is more attuned to popular tastes. His father, unfortunately, is generally disdainful, calling him a “folklorist” and a scholar subservient to the prevailing academic status quo.
Footnote opens with Eliezer sitting in an auditorium with a dour and rigid look on his face as Uriel is being inducted into a scholarly academy, an honor which the father has never received. Despite the downbeat beginning, the first part of the film is fairly lighthearted with Cedar entertaining us with inter-titles describing the background of the characters and Amelie-like cutesy cinematic tricks bouncily scored by Amit Poznansky. Halfway through, however, the film takes a more dramatic turn when Eliezer learns that he has finally won the Israel Prize after waiting for twenty years, an event that threatens the resentment he clings to so obsessively.
Unfortunately, a ridiculous faux pas by the Nominating Committee only serves to place more obstacles in the father-son relationship. It is, unfortunately, not an easily correctable mistake but a true ethical dilemma and one that precipitates a confrontation between Uriel and the academic committee in a tiny room — an absurd scenario that would be funny if it did not have so many potential disastrous ramifications. The brunt of Uriel’s attack is directed towards Yehuda Grossman (Michah Lewesohn), a scholar who has either rejected or ignored his father’s work and whose publication of his own Talmudic discovery undermined all the meticulous research Eliezer had been doing for years. In the film’s most dramatic sequence, the confrontation escalates into highly articulated personal attacks, ultimatums, and even a bit of physical violence.
While Uriel is defending his father at the committee meeting, Eliezer is doing the opposite, criticizing his son during an interview, lumping him in with those whose Talmudic studies he considers to be shallow and superficial. Needless to say, this even further exacerbates their troubled relationship. Footnote is an engaging film marked by exceptional performances by Lewesohn, Ashkenazi, and Bar Aba, and you can enjoy it whether or not you care very much whether or not the current version of the Talmud correctly reflects the original ancient texts. The depiction of Eliezer, however, is one-dimensional and the father’s incessant self-righteousness turns the film into a sour and mostly unpleasant affair. In addition to its depressing tone, numerous plot points are introduced and then dropped without further comment.
Eliezer is seen talking to another woman, a sequence that leads to a bedroom discussion of the event between Uriel and his wife Dikla (Alma Zack), but soon morphs into an argument, its purpose obscure. Also in another thread that goes nowhere except to add to the general unpleasantness, Uriel’s son Josh (Daniel Markovich) goes on a hiking trip and comes home having to confront his father’s anger at his ostensible lack of ambition or goals. Although the loose ends of Footnote are particularly annoying, we are caught up in its very compelling scenario. Cedar knows how to build up the tension and we eagerly await some sort of resolution but, as is the trend of late, the director feels that his film is more valuable as a gigantic set-up than as a satisfying resolution. The result is a film that leaves us thinking that the projectionist inadvertently cut out the best part of the movie.