DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
FOOTNOTE (HEARAT SHULAYIM) (director/writer: Joseph Cedar; cinematographer: Yaron Scharf; editor: Einat Glaser Zarhin; music: Amit Poznansky; cast: Shlomo Bar Aba (Eliezer Shkolnik), Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel Shkolnik), Alisa Rosen (Yehudit Shkolnik), Alma Zak (Dikla Shkolnik), Daniel Markovich (Josh Shkolnik), Micah Lewensohn (Yehuda Grossman), Yuval Scharf (Noa), Nevo Kimchi (Yair Fingerhut); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: David Mandil/Moshe Edery /Leon Edery; Sony Pictures Classics; 2011-Israel-in Hebrew with English subtitles)

"An intriguing and demanding film despite its flaws."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar ("Beaufort"/"Campfire") was born in New York but his parents moved to Israel when he was five. Cedar presents an intense ethical drama about a family and academic conflict. It takes on aspects of a Chekhovian tragedy in its domestic situation, while its drama on Talmudic Studies covers a narrow area of interest for most viewers (the Talmud is a study on how the Jewish people should lead a good religious life). On a grander scale it offers a universal study of human nature.

Footnote concerns itself over the professional rivalry between brilliant father and son Talmudic Studies professors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, competing for limited acknowledgment of their rigorous work. The cranky uncommunicative intellectual father Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a philologist in the specialized field of Talmudic text scholarship, who the establishment has passed over for the last twenty years regarding its prestigious award of the Israel Prize (the country's highest honor, which has been around since 1953 to be given to outstanding contributors in Jewish studies, the sciences, and the arts) and he's also refused acceptance into the cherished National Israel Academy of Sciences. Eliezer spent some thirty years looking for inconsistencies in various versions of the Talmud and considers his research scientific, but has received little recognition for his labors since a colleague accidentally found a Talmudic book that removed the need for his heavy lifting research and the discoverer's follow-up published book on the subject received all the glory for the research and failed to give Eliezer any credit. Looking back at things, Eliezer is most proud that his late mentor, a renown Talmudic scholar, mentioned him once in a footnote of his scholarly paper. Meanwhile the more charismatic and likable family man son Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a popularizer of Judaic lore, whose easy to read facile books on Jewish topics are best-sellers and who is a hit on the lecture circuit. Uriel is honored with a membership into the National Israel Academy of Sciences, which makes his jealous dad even more envious that his son gets the top honors for his empty research scholarship while the purist researcher is left out. Eliezer is embittered because he deeply yearns to be part of this "self-congratulatory award-giving culture," but doesn't know how to play the game.

When an assistant for the Minister of Education mistakenly notified Uriel's father that he was the winner of this year's Israel Prize, Uriel is deeply upset because he knows how much his father really values the prize and would be crushed to learn it was an error. The selection committee in a secret meeting tells the dumbfounded Uriel to notify his dad that the phone call was an honest mistake. The meeting serves as the film's most potent scene, as it's held in the selection committee's tiny office, where the cramped members bicker in a petty manner over how to resolve this crisis that gets bent out of shape by turning into a poignant family drama and a bitter battle between Uriel and the chairman (Micah Lewensohn) over integrity and scholarship. The bungle brings out in the open long-standing grudges, and the hard-pressed son is backed into a corner on how to resolve things and for the first time becomes confrontational as he insists on ceding the award to his father. Uriel also has to deal with a stubborn father, who rips his son's integrity as a researcher to a reporter and that story gets into the newspaper. Eliezer's vanity is exposed as he welcomes the award, even if he suspects something's fishy about it. The scholar might deem himself as an uncompromising researcher, but he craves public recognition as a validation for his life's work so much that he's willing to compromise himself to get this award.

The film to its credit is Shakespearean brutal in its depiction of the relationship of the flawed father and son scholars, whose hold on the truth is as shaky as their understanding of their reality. But Footnote shoots itself in the foot with an ambiguous ending that fails to resolve the conflict between father and son. It's other missteps include a heavy-handed intrusive musical score by Amit Poznansky and tacked on scenes of little value, such as when Uriel's clothes are stolen at his health club. Though not a perfect movie, it's onto something when it attempts to show the troubling emotional dynamics in a father and son relationship where neither can quite articulate what's needed to clear up their simmering relationship.

It's an intriguing and demanding film despite its flaws, with a sizzling sensitive angst-driven performance by Lior Ashkenazi and a razor-sharp droll comedic look at the face of pride in relationships and the injustices in the scholarly field.  

REVIEWED ON 5/8/2012       GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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