Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s last feature, the Oscar-nominated “Beaufort,” was a tense war movie about the 2000 South Lebanon conflict. His latest effort, “Footnote,” involves a much more personal war, in which the opposing sides are a father and his grown son. In Cedar’s dark comic fable, bookish eccentrics pit their egos against each other on a shrewdly composed battlefield where the only potential casualty is self-esteem.
Cedar’s screenplay follows a tale two of Shkolniks: The aging Eliezer (Israeli comic Shlomo Bar Aba), a veteran Talmud professor at Hebrew University, and his middle-aged son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), a more established researcher in the same field. From the first scene, Eliezer sulks in his son’s shadow, as the younger Skolnick accepts an award while his father watches from the audience. Cedar quickly explains the context with an introductory bit that surveys both of their backgrounds, aided by words on the screen and a deadpan voiceover seemingly imported from Woody Allenville. Like Allen’s best creations, Eliezer and Uriel harbor neuroses that run deep.
Eliezer’s grousing has a long history. He spent 30 years analyzing a potential gulf between ancient and contemporary versions of Talmudic texts, only to lose his standing in the field when a colleague took all the credit. The garrulous Uriel, meanwhile, loves the spotlight and hogs it whenever he gets the chance. Although Eliezer’s constant grimace reflects the disdain he feels for the showmanship his son depends on, life in obscurity has its obvious drawbacks. His greatest claim to fame is a small footnote in a research tome, a pithy accomplishment that gives the movie its title and serves as the dominant symbol for Eliezer’s mounting feelings of inadequacy.
Needless to say, he can’t restrain his excitement when learning that he has finally been selected for the state’s coveted Israel Prize, after being nominated and losing 16 times before. (Bar Aba wears a hilariously immovable scowl for the duration of the running time; his character’s few attempts at a smile form a great act of physical comedy.)
Just when he starts to cheer up, however, tragedy lurks around the corner. Cedar introduces an incredible conflict by shifting focus to Uriel and setting him up with a captivating personal trial. In the main set piece, he engages in a prolonged back room conversation with the board responsible for awarding the Israel Prize. The son learns that a miscommunication led his father to believe he was the recipient, when in fact Uriel had been selected for it all along.
Willing to pass on the opportunity to maintain his dad’s newfound optimism, Uriel faces down Eliezer’s longtime competitor, the cruel Professor Grossman (Micah Lewensohn). Old conflicts, interpersonal politics and insurmountable moral quandaries bubble to the surface in a fascinatingly tense exchange. The fallout, in which Uriel ponders whether it’s worth ceding his honor to his ungrateful pop, lays out the awkward social conundrum as if it were “Curb Your Enthusiasm” by way of Saul Bellow.
While Uriel tries to decide whether it’s worth his time to support his old man, “Footnote” cleverly examines how Talmudic scholarship dominates Eliezer’s perspective, virtually draining him of pathos. When the older Shkolnik begins to figure out the details behind his award, Cedar externalizes the process of detective work with an amusingly histrionic orchestral score.
The extensive build-up revolves around whether or not Uriel will let his father live out his dream, but Cedar’s stylistic indulgences come at the cost of a lasting emotional impact. That’s unfortunate, since the story ostensibly takes the mold of a family drama and could have used a cleaner finale. But its focus on stuck-up academics makes “Footnote” an enjoyable, and quite literal, textbook thriller.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Purchased for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics during Cannes, this competition title will probably receive a warm welcome from art-house audiences.
criticWIRE grade: B+