Thursday, March 29, 2012

Finding the universal in the obscure

Father and son both are Talmudic scholars, but they're also at odds in Footnote, a movie that tests their very souls.

The Israeli movie Footnote puts its characters into a vice and squeezes until it hurts. Director Joseph Cedar, who also wrote the screenplay, deals with a host of ethical issues embedded in a testy, competitive father-son relationship. To further complicate matters, this particular father and son happen to ply the same trade: They’re both Talmudic scholars.

Talmudic scholarship hardly sounds like the basis for an exciting movie, but if you give Footnote a chance, you’ll soon realize that it’s a story about what can ensue when a son enters the family business and surpasses his father -- not an impossible or uncommon situation aside from the fact that this time the father is an obsessive scholar who has spent this life attempting to prove a single point, only to be eclipsed by another scholar and then by his son. Footnote finds novel ways of dealing with the kinds of tensions that sour a relationship that, perhaps more than any other, plays a key role in defining manhood.

Cedar, who previously directed the combat film Beaufort, this time embeds his story in a different kind of battle, the ruthless competition that often ripples through academic circles, where -- as the old joke has it -- the conniving is great because the stakes are so damn small.

Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a much honored scholar, whose approach to research tends to be cultural and intuitive. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), Uriel’s father, is a meticulous, fact-oriented researcher who’s contemptuous of the way in which his more successful son conducts his scholarly business.

But here’s the rub: Uriel has been honored for his work while Eliezer never has received the acclaim he believes he deserves. When Eliezer is told that he’s going to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, he feels as if a life of rejection is about to be vindicated. A dedicated philologist, Eliezer finally will emerge from shadows that he believes have been cast over his career by jealous detractors, not the last of which is the devious Professor Grossman (Micah Lowenstein).

No fair telling more, but know that Cedar’s sharp and lively movie puts father and son into a moral quandary that tests each man’s deepest principles and threatens to undermine the entire psychological basis for each man’s character.

Sounds heavy, I know, but Cedar -- particularly in the early going -- dishes out the story in playful, spirited chunks. Only gradually does he abandon an overtly comic tone.

Cedar seems to have no special fondness for academia. A meeting of a prize-awarding committee staged in a room the size of a broom closet blisters with comedy and conflict. Amit Poznansky’s score can have a near-antic quality, and Cedar sometimes uses chapter titles to set up a sequence, thus allowing us to maintain perspective while the character’s are rapidly losing theirs.

Cedar is particularly attuned to the absurdities that abound in the quest for recognition and status, even as they’re reflected in the omnipresent face of Israeli security, uniformed guards and metal detectors.

The movie’s title derives from the fact that Eliezer’s great achievement involves having been named in the footnote of his mentor, an important scholar. For Eliezer, this apparent trifle has taken on gargantuan, life-justifying proportions.

Amusing and provocative, Cedar’s movie should not be mistaken for a footnote in the history of Israeli cinema; it’s a major addition, a work of incisive, biting humor and acute observation.

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