Nuanced acting, writing compel
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
The politics of working in academia are famously complicated. But the Israeli movie "Footnote," an Oscar nominee for best foreign film, throws an additional wrench into an already tricky scenario - contentious familial relations.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) are professors of Talmudic studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While Eliezer is an abrupt, humorless man who has spent decades inspecting ancient documents for tiny clues, Uriel is a likable type, a people person who spends his days lecturing amid games of racquetball. As charisma trumps intellectual fervor, Uriel's accolades surpass those of his father. This does little to encourage father-son bonding.
The film opens with one such honor, as text scrolls across the screen to note this is the most difficult day in the life of Professor Shkolnik. The camera focuses for the first few minutes on the elder professor as the accomplishments of the younger are read aloud in voice-over. First Eliezer stands motionless in his library with his arms crossed, then he stomps down the road outside his home; finally he is shown sitting in an auditorium with a scornful expression. It becomes clear that the disembodied voice is awarding Uriel membership into the academy of sciences, something Eliezer has never attained. Even as the younger Shkolnik delivers an acceptance speech praising his father's humility and academic perseverance, the elder professor remains unmoved.
This setup could spell tragedy. And yet, writer-director Joseph Cedar infuses his story with whimsical touches and satirical setups in which the family drama feels more akin to "The Royal Tenenbaums" than "Ordinary People." One example: Eliezer's proudest achievement is that his name was mentioned in the footnote of another academic's publication.
It is these small, gently humorous moments that no doubt earned "Footnote" the best screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cedar also imaginatively employs a cinematic version of the literary footnote. An asterisk might appear on-screen with a notation - "A few things to know about Eliezer Shkolnik," for example - after which the audience learns some of the intellectual's peccadillos, including one of his favorite phrases: "One cannot draw evidence from fools."
Cedar tends to focus his camera away from the action. It turns out to be unconventionally engrossing to watch Eliezer's barely changing facial expressions during his son's acceptance speech, and much more humorous to see big-time professors in a cramped office rejigger their seats as someone enters or leaves the room.
Meanwhile, Bar-Aba and Ashkenazi do exceptional work portraying characters who are more varied than first appearances imply. It's not easy to make Eliezer a sympathetic character, yet Bar-Aba's demonstration of fleeting vulnerability awakens inevitable, if equally brief, compassion.
If the film's final moments don't turn out to be wholly satisfying, they don't undo the impact of the memorable lead-up. Most footnotes don't get a passing glance, but this one proves worthy of careful study.
Contains brief nudity. In Hebrew with English subtitles.