[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
In the press notes I received at the screening of Footnote, writer/director Joseph Cedar comments that his film "qualifies as a tragedy, as most father-son stories do." It's a big statement; what's interesting about Footnote — if not entirely successful — is how Cedar presents that tragedy.
Describing the plot without spoiling its central elements is difficult, but basically, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a professor at the Hebrew University, a Talmudic scholar whose micro-focused research has gone largely unappreciated thanks to bad timing, academic backbiting, and Eliezer's immutably sour personality. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is a professor in the same department; his focus is broader, more civilian-friendly. Naturally, there is competition between father and son, although it isn't spoken of between them…until the precipitating event, it isn't spoken of at all, and even that event and its ensuing complications across the family doesn't force that conversation out in the open. It takes place through articles, footnotes, and the ways father and son read and write them.
Cedar often plays this silent tension for laughs, using list chyrons and cueing melodramatic chords on the score. The sound design amps up some effects and drops out others to parallel the selective understandings of the characters; when Uriel gives a speech accepting an award, the camera stays steady on Eliezer's unkempt eyebrows and bilious stare into the middle distance while the sound of his irritated breathing slowly crescendos. Later, as Eliezer and his strangely impassive wife, Uriel's mother Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), proceed into an auditorium, footsteps and airplane-y white noise dominate.
Cedar's decision not to include a confrontation between Eliezer and Uriel — or a discussion between Eliezer and Yehudit, or much reaction from Yehudit at all — is both maddening and refreshing. The "closure" we may have unconsciously come to expect in chapters of filial pain and disappointment is something most of us have to live without in real life; more to the point, it's true to these characters, emotionally bleak but truthful.
The execution doesn't always work. One scene featuring the university's most decorated minds crammed into a meeting "room" the size of a toaster oven is a deft visual gag, but the dialogue should move faster and include more over-talking (tip of the hat to Ashkenazi for the elegance of his straight-to-camera exposition-dumping here, though). And Yehudit's blankness might be too tough to read. Not knowing how she feels is one thing, but I'm not sure I know that she feels. Not that that couldn't work too, in context, but I needed a little more from that character.
But it does a handful of nifty things — the set design of an academic's teetering-book-pile-hole of an office is dead on, for one — and I feel confident in declaring "cookie recipes in the Babylonian Diaspora" the Oscars Death Race Subtitle of the Week.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.