Footnote: A Father-Son Drama Gets Talmudic
Like the Talmud itself, Footnote, the Oscar-nominated Israeli film about a rivalry between father/son Talmudic scholars, is a commentary on a commentary on a commentary—an intricately layered telling of a small story with few consequences, but with larger, unresolved meanings. Unlike the Talmud (the centuries-old rabbinical text that defines modern Judaism), this tense, well-paced film is also surprisingly funny, especially when satirizing the insular world of academia, a setting where something as little as a footnote can spark a titanic clash of both ideas and egos.
The plot is biblical in its simplicity: The obsessive (perhaps autistic) professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), whose painstaking life's work has gone largely unrecognized by his colleagues but for a single cherished footnote by a renowned mentor, must bitterly watch as his own son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), an ambitious rising star, receives the professional accolades his father has long deserved and desired. Their already strained relationship is further tested when, through a clerical error, Eliezer is informed he has finally won Israel's highest academic honor, an award that was actually meant for his son.
Set against the mundane dystopia of a modern Israeli security state that seems to turn every entrance and exit into a TSA checkpoint, Footnote is a triumph of pacing, with long shots of Bar-Aba's long, unmoving face cut against frenetic backstory-revealing frames that slide across the screen like the microfiche the elder professor spends his days studying. There are no jokes or punch lines per se, but writer-director Joseph Cedar's deft satirical touch is on display throughout; when bureaucrats, lawyers, and academics crowd into a tiny ministry office to decide Eliezer's fate—a room so small they must all stand up and move their chairs every time the door is opened—it makes for a scene worthy of Brazil, if not A Night at the Opera.