Film Review: Footnote

A father-son drama is given a healthy dose of Jewish humor in this Oscar-nominated Israeli film.

One of the essential components of Jewish humor is finding comedy in the face of great tragedy. So it goes with Footnote, the fourth feature film from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar and one of the five nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year’s Oscar ceremony. The bulk of the narrative revolves around the deep and intense rivalry between two prestigious Talmudic scholars who also happen to be father and son. It’s a downbeat, even depressing subject, but Cedar approaches it in a gently comic way, via low-key bits of humor and visual flourishes that recall movies like Amélie (though far less aggressively stylized). Still, if you’re anticipating a traditional happy ending, you’ve got the wrong movie and the wrong culture, as Jewish comedies don’t necessarily resolve themselves in upbeat, audience-friendly ways. Mostly, life just goes on in all its sad, messy glory…and that may be the ultimate cosmic joke.

Footnote opens with a lengthy single shot of an older man sitting in a crowded room listening as the winner of a prestigious award is being introduced. The recipient of this honor takes the stage next and launches into an extended story about his father that’s intended as a humorous anecdote, but carries with it a detectable undercurrent of melancholy. It soon becomes clear that the seated man is the father in question—veteran professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba)—and the man that’s speaking is his grown son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), a scholar who’s surpassed his dad in prestige and public recognition. Eliezer knows full well that his offspring has become the more celebrated (and decorated) Shkolnik and it eats away at him more and more with each passing year. For his part, Uriel refrains from gloating about his success and would clearly much prefer it if his father enjoyed the same level of renown, especially due to extraordinary effort the elder scholar poured into his work.

For much of his life, Eliezer had devoted himself to a project that would have lasting ramifications for his field. But just as he's on the verge of publishing nearly three decades’ worth of research, another scholar who made a lucky last-minute discovery swoops in and prints his findings first, thus winning all the acclaim and awards Eliezer had hoped for himself. While he continues to study and teach, whatever joy he found in his work has long since disappeared, replaced by a heavy-hearted bitterness. Adding to that anger is the fact that he's been repeatedly—and, it seems, quite deliberately—passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize. Then, one afternoon, a miracle occurs when he receives a phone call informing him that he's at last won that honor. Not long after, though, Uriel receives a frantic phone call from the Israel Prize governing committee, which informs him that a horrible error has been made: The award was supposed to go to him, not his father. So now the son is faced with an impossible choice: Accept the prize and likely sever his relationship with his father for good? Or keep mum and pass the award along to Eliezer, even though that'll have lasting ramifications for his own career?

Don't worry, I won't reveal Uriel's decision; suffice it to say that when he makes it, he commits to that path. There are none of the last-minute changes of heart or surprise twists of fate that you would likely get in a Hollywood version of these events. Indeed, "fate" as a general concept doesn't seem to exist for these men. Rather, the tragicomic situation they find themselves in is due entirely to their own—and other people's—all-too-human mistakes. (Footnote's pronounced secularism is very much in keeping with the characters' field of study, as the Talmud is more of a legal text than a religious one.)

Aba and Ashkenazi create a compelling portrait of an estranged father and son, managing to avoid many of the predictable clichés that often accompany this kind of relationship. And Cedar's screenplay is equally generous to the elder and the younger Shkolnik, refraining from making either one the obviously better man. Where the movie stumbles somewhat is in the stylistic flourishes—such as expository flashbacks preceded by interstitial text—that strain too hard to be conventionally comic. The main source of the film's rueful sense of humor is watching good intentions go awry. And that's something that viewers from all backgrounds, be they Jews or Gentiles, can identify with.