Footnote Review: Israeli Film’s Still Got It

Footnote (written and directed by Joseph Cedar) tells the Freud-worthy story of Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi), a father and son who are both intense academics studying the Talmud at Hebrew U. While the elder Shkolnik toils away on unheralded esoterica, much to his chagrin, his son has become a respected and celebrated prof. So when the elder Shkolnik receives a phone call informing him that he has been awarded the coveted Israel Prize, for which he has been overlooked for some 20 years–a phone call actually meant for his son–a hilarious comedy of errors ensues. Well, not quite.

This film possesses a particularly Jewish point of view–and not simply because it contains Talmudic themes, takes place in Israel, and features two mavens schvitzing over who will win the Israel Prize like a couple of schmucks. It’s that, tonally, Footnote straddles a line between comedy and tragedy–sometimes rushing back and forth between the two at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. You find yourself laughing at intra-family betrayal, and then wondering if you were supposed to be laughing.

This is how the seemingly esoteric film becomes so relatable, even to people who have no idea what these two men are studying. (This reviewer included.) Footnote is about family, and how, generation after generation, we (people, not just Jews) keep letting minuscule, ego-driven arguments come between us. It’s makes sense that the subject is so academic; families find things to argue over.

(I saw the film with my dad. I think we shared a moment. Anyway…)

Footnote features two great performances from its leads. You switch back and forth between which Shkolnik to route for, and ultimately it’s unclear if either is the “good guy.” This is also reflected in its disjointed, but realistic–distinctly un-Hollywood–screenplay. And its score, while occasionally overbearing, enliven a few scenes that could have otherwise slowed the drama–an aging academic sitting at a desk looking through microfiche of the Talmud, for example…

As such, the film was rightly nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, won 9–count ’em 9!–Ophirs (The Award of the Israeli Film Academy), and even picked up a best screenplay award at the same Cannes Film Festival where Lars Von Trier told a press conference that he was a Nazi who hated Israel. (Remember that?) As a follower of Israeli cinema, it’s gratifying to see an Israeli film NOT ABOUT WAR get this kind of play overseas. Who knows, perhaps the filmmakers will be able to scrounge up enough money off  the success of this film to make one about war.

The only moment where the film veers off the rails a bit is towards the end when a STOMP-inspired dream sequence seems to overtake a film otherwise firmly set in reality. Yes, the character’s love-hate relationship with his son and his ambivalence towards traditional academic accolades is tearing him apart, but do we really need to see impressionistic close-ups of the tub-drummers’ panting bodies to understand that? Luckily, the film rights itself with a surprising, ambiguous and poignant ending. For a movie with some near-slapstick moments–Why have an official Israel Prize Committee meeting in such a comically tiny room?–it ends on a surprisingly dour note, but, hey, that’s Israeli humor for you.

What do you think?

About The Author

Samuel Johnson

Sam Johnson was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but is now an LA-based writer/director/producer. Follow him @smorganjohnson on the twitter.

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