It’s an old professional adage that academic politics are as vicious as they are because the stakes are so low. That’s a point made by Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar in his Oscar-nominated “Footnote,” and professors in all fields will relish the film’s acute observations on the rivalries that occur within so rarefied a field as Talmudic philology and palaeography.
But the film blends that material into a larger tale of a father-son relationship that’s poisoned by scholarly ambition and feelings of inferiority. The plot hinges on a prestigious governmental award that’s long eluded pedantic Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba, with a fussy manner that recalls Tony Shalhoub’s Monk). He’s spent his entire career carefully recording and sifting readings from medieval manuscripts of the Torah to prove that an alternative text circulated in Europe, only to have his thunder stolen by a hostile colleague named Grossman (Micah Lewesohn), who found an actual copy of the text in the binding of a codex and published it, scooping Eliezer and making his years of labor moot. As a result poor Shkolnik’s sole claim to fame is a mention in a footnote of a magisterial work by his mentor, who was also Grossman’s teacher.
Eliezer’s son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a Talmudic scholar as well, but of a very different sort. Rather than concentrating on textual minutiae, he looks at the big picture, constructing big theories that will appeal to a wide readership from the Scriptural texts—the more faddish, the better. With an approachable manner and ability to connect with a lay audience as opposed to his father’s standoffishness and nervousness around strangers, he’s become a popular celebrity and a respected, if somewhat imperious, colleague. But his father looks upon his work as shallow and unscientific, envying the recognition he gets while his own achievements are ignored.
Their already tense relationship is brought to the brink when Eliezer is informed that’s been awarded the Israeli Prize, given to those he considers his inferiors for over twenty years. The only problem, as we learn in the picture’s single funniest (but also potent) sequence, staged in a conference room that’s more like a broom closet, is that the ministry granting the prize confused father and son: it was actually Uriel who won, not Eliezer and since Grossman is the chair of the awards committee, he refuses to switch the prize to the father.
The battle of wills between Uriel and Grossman becomes a test not only of the son’s powers of persuasion, but of his willingness to abandon his own ambitions for the sake of a man whose respect he’s never been able to earn. Cedar cannily paints the characters in shades of gray instead of black-and-white to make matters ethically murky. Uriel is a preening fellow with a mean streak, especially with his students, but he’s also a concerned father to his own son, and harbors a sense of indebtedness to Eliezer. The elder Shkolnik may seem simply a persecuted figure, but he’s revealed as a man of simmering resentment and self-importance, with a problematic relationship not only with his son but his wife Yehudit (Alisa Rosen) as well. Yet his skill is undeniable: in a clever scene that bears a passing resemblance to the conclusion of “The Usual Suspects,” he uses his philological dexterity to understand the real authorship of the prize citation supposedly penned by Grossman. And Grossman too may be more complicated a figure than he first seems, if in fact the motive behind his attitude toward his erstwhile classmate is more than simply professional, as a couple of brief indications might suggest.
The fact that “Footnote” works as well as it does depends a great deal on the pitch-perfect turns by Bar-Aba, Ashkenazi and Lewesohn, but Cedar is even more responsible, not only for his clever script, with nice touches of humor balancing heavier dramatic moments, but for the flourishes he employs to make an arcane subject not just accessible but engaging—written titles, montages, and swift cuts among them. Yaron Scharf’s cinematography is another asset—particularly in that conference room sequence—as is Amit Poznansky’s nifty score, which deftly reflects Einet Glaser Zarhin’s editing choices.
To many viewers the picture may seem as forbidding as a dense scholarly tome. But give it a chance, and you might find it as pleasurable as a good novella.