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April 8, 2012

There’s an old saying that circulates among university faculties: “academic rivalries are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Evidently it even circulates in Israel, where it forms a strong undercurrent in Footnote, Joseph Cedar’s frenetic, absurd, and hilarious film. At once it’s incisive about both academic politics and family drama, and it presents both with intriguing, audacious experiments in cinematography.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), are both professors of Talmudic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Uriel is a rising star; we open on him receiving a prestigious membership in the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He gives talks all around Jerusalem, and is widely recognized.

Or, at least, he’s widely recognized within his circles. The film is tightly focused, and everyone we see has some connection to the academic community. It’s quite possible — even likely — that nobody else cares, but within this little corner these goings-on are central and bear overwhelming importance. When you’re in such an insular community, built out of tunnel vision, it’s easily possible to lose perspective.

Uriel is part of a more recent tradition of Talmudic scholarship, which deploys sociological, historical, and archaeological techniques in the study of the ancient Jewish people and the context in which the Talmud was written and re-written. Eliezer, on the other hand, works in an older, philological tradition that examines the text itself with a fine-toothed comb. Eliezer’s major accomplishment was piecing together the existence of an older Torah by carefully examining patterns of transcription errors and discrepancies in modern versions and commentaries. It was a landmark achievement, undercut only by the fact that shortly before publication a copy was found serving as filler in the binding of another old text by Eliezer’s rival, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn).

Eliezer is bitter; his long memory and obsessive attention to detail now go to fuel his resentment. But when he receives a call telling him that he is to be awarded the Israel Prize in Jewish studies, it turns his entire world around. Unfortunately, it seems that the call was a mistake — in Hebrew both “Eliezer” and “Uriel” begin with the letter ‘א’, and the university gave the wrong mobile number — and now Uriel is called upon to break the news somehow.

Cedar’s writing is tight and moves swiftly, carrying the audience along. The significant flaw is a side plot about Uriel’s own son, Josh (Daniel Markovich); it never really goes much of anywhere, and doesn’t highlight the theme of father-son relationships as much as Cedar may have intended it to. The academic banter is spot-on, though, especially in the scene when the news is broken to Uriel; these scholars have honed their skills in memory and rhetoric, which are then turned loose on each other in old, meticulously-documented grudges.

The academic theme also comes across in the device of the microfiche reader, which Cedar as director uses to jump from one section to the next. The zooming, blurring cuts actually manage to make info-dumps engaging; there’s motion and action in the search rather than just a passive reception of facts about the characters. Cedar has a real talent for innovation as a filmmaker, although he can (and does) get carried away from himself by the end of the movie.

It’s no small wonder that Footnote was up for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, and it was surely a close match between this film and A Separation. One hopes that Cedar is not Eliezer’s equal in holding grudges and imagining political slights; if Footnote is any indication he won’t be waiting twenty years for his own recognition.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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