Joseph Cedar‘s “Footnote” refuses to be easily categorized. This writer pegs it as the offspring of an uneasy marriage between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the Coen Brothers, circa “Barton Fink,” inhabiting a world where emotions frequently bend and shape reality. Probably the most nerve-wracking film ever made about men studying the Talmud, a vital text that serves as the first written record of Jewish Oral Law and rabbinical discussion that would shape the culture and faith for centuries onward, “Footnote” opens whimsically but loses that playfulness quickly. The transformation lends the picture a hardened edge, until a rapid descent into great tragedy makes for an intensely memorable final fifteen minutes.
Primarily the story of a father and son locked in competition, “Footnote” concerns aging academic Eliezer Shkolnik (a definite injoke for Russian-speaking Israelis – “shkolnik” is Russian for “student”), played by Israeli theater actor Shlomo Bar Aba. Eliezer is a life-long philologist, puzzling out the changing meaning of words over time. Whether he took up the work because of his coarse, extremely anal personality or whether his studies changed the man is unclear, but Eliezer remains committed to order, repetition and a self-imposed schedule that makes any minor change a tidal wave threatening to sweep the old man off his feet. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is nothing like his father — or so we think. The charismatic younger man remains intensely prolific but strives with great hunger for acceptance and acclaim, despite settling into a cushy family life and a comfortable career.
Eliezer is saddled with an unrealized life achievement, a massive thirty-year project that was suddenly and permanently rendered useless when another professor found a completed copy of a manuscript Eliezer was working toward for decades on end. He continues to labor while nursing a festering grudge — Eliezer has never been nominated for the Israel Prize, one of the state’s highest honors. Then, one day, his phone rings. He’s won. Suddenly, small changes appear in his daily routine, hardly a transformation but a clear change in the man. Meanwhile Uriel barely has time to come to terms with his father’s unexpected honor when the son is presented with a terrible choice that may promote Uriel but will most certainly crush Eliezer.
Cedar, who also penned the script (awarded Best Screenplay at Cannes), notes in an interview that “Footnote” would benefit from a lack of spoilers. This writer is tempted to agree, as the plot is not overly complex but key moments need not be illuminated to fully appreciate the dramatic cauldron that bubbles over in the final act. Cedar delivers much exposition via graphics and tidbit sequences, and this tactic feels not only dated but a bit condescending towards the very lived-in portraits his cast designs. But then, wisely, “Footnote” casts off these trappings, or rather shows how quickly they spoil under pressure, when jealousy takes hold and every word cuts like a knife.
The film’s sound design especially stands out, the work of Alex Claude, who capably transforms everyday sounds into giant crackling booms that reverberate in the protagonists’ minds and turn simple scenes into hellish confines. It’s overwhelming at times but Einat Glaser-Zarhin‘s editing sells it, especially in an audacious sequence of discovery near the very end of the film, where the editing comes to fully dominate and bring to cinematic life a rapid-fire thought process. The only weak link here is Amit Poznansky‘s overblown, bombastic score, which undercuts the drama and pushes it further into parody by overselling the key plot turns. Utilized liberally, the score doesn’t hurt the film significantly, but there are moments I wished were delivered in total silence that instead are shot through with overdramatic strings and violins.
Despite concerning intellectuals, “Footnote” is not a challenging film — you won’t need to scratch your head over the plot. It is, however, an emotionally ravaging journey that puts a relationship under a powerful looking glass and picks it apart until a bad decision grows larger and larger still, nesting under the skin like a poisonous insect, tiny but potentially deadly. When the final frame flashes on screen, “Footnote” may leave you shook up and slightly dissapointed. Wait for it. The feeling will pass and be replaced with a respect for a rewarding, if not entirely successful film. [B]