Self-seriousness and monomania among specialists can be great sources of dark comedy, and director Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated “Footnote” is a rare marvel, depicting a petty father-and-son rivalry with uncompromising sharpness and nasty humor. Cedar takes what sounds like a dry subject — competition among Talmudic scholars — and spins off-kilter laughs out of this academic niche while frequently recalling the down-the-rabbit-hole sensibility of Charlie Kaufman.
Israeli philologist Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) spent 30 years exploring a specific contradiction in the translation of the Talmud, and he was on the brink of publishing his findings when rival scholar Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn) randomly looked in the margins of a moldy tome and reach the same conclusion, beating him to the punch. Embittered by the defeat, Eliezer continues to ponderously scour the Talmud every day at the National Library as his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) becomes a minor celebrity for his pop-scholarship in the same arena.
Eliezer and Uriel are radically different people. The father's obsessive focus and lack of social ability prompt Uriel's wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), to describe him as “autistic,” and she is not far off the mark: Eliezer is most comfortable wearing industrial soundproofing headphones while working at home, keeping his long-suffering wife at a distance. In contrast, Uriel is a charismatic egomaniac who comes to his success a little too easily and will take the spotlight whenever it is offered.
The only thing keeping Uriel in check is the tenuous detente he maintains with his father, who resents his son's comparative intellectual slightness. Uriel is happy when it is announced that his father will win the coveted Israel Prize after years of being passed over by its governing board, because he believes his father might let go of his long-standing bitterness. But then the prize's governing board, overseen by Grossman, makes a grievous error, and Uriel must choose between his own pride and bolstering his father's reputation for the sake of family.
Exploring both sides
Using sharp editing and a series of bracing flashback sequences, Cedar depicts Uriel and Eliezer as men worthy of both scorn and sympathy in equal measures. When Uriel is faced with the board's mistake, he lashes out angrily at Grossman in a masterful scene set in uncomfortably close quarters. At first, Uriel seems to be acting out of love and altruism, but he's really just afraid of his father and, as he is forced into an uncomfortable task, he realizes just how little his father's work accomplished. On the flip side, Eliezer uses what was to be a laudatory softball interview with a young reporter (Yuval Scharf) as a chance to grandstand and take his son down several notches.
Cedar captures all of this with incisive humor as the Shkolniks collide over who is truly worthy of honor and recognition. “Footnote” requires absolutely no knowledge of the Talmud, since it is mainly concerned with family competition and fragile egos.
This Oscar nominee for best foreign film finds universal comedy in smart people being small-minded.
— George Lang
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Alma Zack, Yuval Scharf. (Thematic elements, brief nudity, language and smoking)