The universe of Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Oscar nominee from Israel for Best Foreign Language film, couldn’t be more specific. It’s a father-son comedy/morality tale set in the world of Israel’s Talmudic academia. It doesn’t sound hilarious, but it is. That doesn’t stop it from also being a tragedy. Laughing one minute, and stuck between a rock and a hard place the next, it’s surprising how much “Footnote” says about all of us. Cinematically, “Footnote” is a study in how tone is created and used to put audiences in the same conundrum as its characters. Tone, writer-director Cedar believes, “is a miraculous outcome of a group of people working with some common God-sent intuitive sensibility.”
Below, five questions for the director. The film opens in Los Angeles March 16.
What is it that breeds such competition among the scholars in Talmudic academia?
I think competition is an important factor in any field and Talmud research is no exception, even if some Talmud scholars don’t like to admit it. I know that from my seat in the theater, watching a competition become fierce and even ruthless is more enjoyable when the people involved are less inclined to admit that what they really want is to knock down their opponent and claim victory just like in a boxing match. In that sense, the world of Talmud research is really a great pleasure.
“Footnote” is tragic one minute and hilarious the next. How aware of that dichotomy were you when writing and directing the film?
I was probably aware enough during the writing of the tone I was looking for to know when a scene was working and when it didn’t feel consistent with the tone of the rest of the story. But the truth is that tone is so hard to control and is a result of so many elements that only come together at the final stages of postproduction, that I feel I shouldn’t really take credit for it. The tone of a film, I believe, is a miraculous outcome of a group of people working with some common God-sent intuitive sensibility.
How would you define the fundamental differences between Eliezer’s (the father) and Uriel’s (his son) views on right and wrong?
Eliezer is about the strictness and rigidness of the written word. Uriel is about the softness and compromising, flexible nature of the oral word. For Eliezer there is only true or false, correct or mistake. For Uriel there is a whole middle ground where words like ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘ugly,’ etc. might come in.
The story is an intimate and specific family portrait. How is it that such “small” films are often able to reveal so much more about their audiences than “big” films?
I can think of some intimate, specific stories that don’t say much either, so I’m not sure that is the criteria I would look for. I do tend to like films that are very particular in their characters and setting because they usually allow the filmmakers to defy expectations and go places that a broader, more “universal” story would never go. I do agree though that size does not matter. The smallest detail, or tiniest nuance, can sometimes be more cathartic than the most grandiose epic-scale finale. Anyone who has seen a Mike Leigh film knows this.
What are your favorite five films of 2011?
Not in any particular order, and only those that come to mind right away without going through a comprehensive list of all the films I’ve seen this year: “Moneyball,” “The Artist,” “A Separation,” “The Kid with a Bike,” “Midnight in Paris” and “The Law in These Parts,” by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz.