Footnote | Director Joseph Cedar | Score: 7.5
Joseph Cedar’s film opens with a crescendo-building string-and-horn score that has the exact feel of a Hitchcockian thriller — all unanswered questions and sweeping mystery — which at first seems out of place in what is essentially a domestic drama about the pride and vanity of academics, but it turns out to be surprisingly apt. It isn’t any kind of whodunit, exactly, but it does go on to reveal a good deal about the human condition at its most capricious and calculating.
The Israeli film stars Shlomo Bar-Aba as Professor Eliezer Shkolnik, an elderly and extremely bitter man, taken to ensconcing himself deep within his study surrounded by books and Talmudic texts, and putting on a pair of bulbous noise-cancelling headphones to block out the rest of the world around him. Eliezer is particularly sour because two decades before, as he was on the precipice of publishing his life’s work in comparing Talmudic texts, he was beaten to the punch by a colleague, Dr. Grossman (Micah Lewesohn), who discovered an ancient text and published his findings months before Eliezer would have. Eliezer’s son, meanwhile, the esteemed Professor Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), has had nothing but a series of accolades, awards and gladhanders, to his father’s increasing consternation. When Eliezer finally does get a call congratulating him for winning the prestigious Israel award for academic research, in a flash, he’s given the acceptance and validation he’s been silently pining for all these years. The only problem, as Uriel learns to his horror: The award was meant to go to him and not his father.
For a film concerning obscure academic squabbles and feuds, the story has all the trappings of the biblical parable: Parents envious of their children; petty men betraying their consciences in order to advance in their careers; and, ultimately, a sacrifice made with the best of intentions that turns instead into a bitter cataclysm. Despite its potentially dry subject matter, however, it is anything but flat. Cedar’s camera probes the surroundings, finding subtle details that signify a great deal to his characters — from an absently smoked cigarette to a dried-up drinking fountain nozzle. The storytelling is a study in precision and acuity (the short, wordless scene in the beginning of the film as father and son sit next to each other for the son’s newest award tells you almost everything you need to know about their relationship), never swaying from its character’s staunchly held perception.
But it also digs far deeper than you might suspect. What is on the surface a conflict of pride and vanity becomes by the end, nothing short of the very moment in which we turn away from our souls and become something entirely different from what we might have imagined for ourselves. No one emerges from this powerful drama unscathed, least of all the single-minded senior professor, whose life’s work comes down to a blindingly simple equation: Do we do what’s right or do we accept the same lie the rest of the world has been telling itself since the dawn of civilization?
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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