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‘Footnote’: Parsing Truths, If You Can Pinpoint Them

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 8, 2012

The first joke in Footnote arrives before the movie even begins. The curtains open to their maximum width, signaling that this is a widescreen movie — a saga of feuding Talmudic scholars, shot in the format associated with Westerns and samurai pictures.

New York-born Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s film has many such absurdist touches, yet it’s as much tragic as comic. There’s genuine faculty-lounge pathos in its tale of a father who doggedly pursues scholarly minutiae and the son who’s entered the same field, but takes a big-picture approach.

In part, those different modes simply reflect different personalities. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a quiet man, so focused on his work that one character suggests he has contemporary cinema’s most-invoked psychological quirk: Asperger’s syndrome. Eliezer’s bearishly affable son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), is something of a showman, packaging nuggets of scholarly lore in books that appeal to nonspecialists.

The action begins with an event that might make another father proud: Uriel is accepted into the Israeli Academy of Sciences. But Eliezer has never received this honor, so he seethes in the audience as his son delivers a speech full of crowd-pleasing false humility. He’s a charmer but a phony, while his father is sincere yet nearly friendless.

After the talk, Eliezer goes outside for air, only to find he can’t return; he isn’t wearing the wristband required to enter official Israeli structures. The moment is one of several that chillingly depict life in a high-security state, but it’s also symbolic: The grumpy old man doesn’t have proper ID for the demimonde that hails his son.

At this point, Cedar steps in to recount Eliezer’s sad story: He’s a philologist of no reputation, no prizes and few students. He may have made one major textual discovery, but he was upstaged by a rival, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn), who published first. Currently, Eliezer’s greatest honor is a footnote in a better-known scholar’s book.

The obscure philologist’s life is about to change, however. An unexpected phone call informs him that he’s been selected for the prestigious Israel Prize. But there’s something fishy about this announcement, and in the days leading up to the ceremony Eliezer and Uriel will do some frantic work — both in their customary styles.

Cedar’s previous effort, Beaufort, was a powerfully claustrophobic war movie about Israeli soldiers confined in an ancient fort in Lebanon. The director’s affinity for tight spaces is also evident in Footnote: In the film’s most memorable scene, a group of academics that includes Uriel and the poisonous Grossman convene for an secret emergency meeting in a conference room/supply closet.

Where Beaufort offered a slightly eerie brand of naturalism, Footnote is unabashedly contrived. Disorienting edits jumble the narrative flow, narration and on-screen text interrupt the story, and Amit Poznansky’s score swells melodramatically to underscore crucial developments. The movie is not a story but a text, and Cedar is its playfully intrusive interpreter.

“There are things more important than the truth,” insists one character, arguing for humane generosity over strict procedure. But that sentiment doesn’t lead to reconciliation and a heartwarming conclusion. Instead, the movie ends with a feeling of emptiness. Footnote is no samurai picture, but it does deliver a killer gash to one man’s ego. (Recommended) [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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