There are moments in Footnote that resonate with any academic. The satire of the cramped rooms and the highfalutin conversations in academic babble is sharp, biting, and accurate. This also has the distinction of being one of the few films about academe that doesn't include a relationship between a teacher and a student, and for that it deserves applause. Not limited to satirizing the academy, the film is also about fathers and sons and the tough love fathers sometimes bone-headedly think their sons need. This plot is poignant and universal.
What bothers me about the film are the ending, where I though we needed more clarity, and the film's misogyny. The women are all either idiots or supporters, and when Eliezer's wife finds out the film's primary secret, her response is merely to support more. The female characters lack any agency in the home or the profession, and while it's true that some sections of academe are miniature boys' clubs, the film doesn't seem to level its satire bullseye at the phallocentrism of the academy.
Overall, there's a lot to like about this film, but where it fails, it fails big.
"Footnote" is also directed and acted like a short. Everything about it screams short. Why it was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar I will never understand. Thank God it lost (to the vastly superior "A Separation"). The corruption in the Foreign-Language category is legendary. It appears that nominations are simply auctioned off to the highest bidders.
Cedar's film does have interesting content. As a short, it would have been great. A father and son, both Talmudic scholars in present-day Israel, have a rivalry of sorts. The father grows quite bitter as he watches his son win far more accolades than he ever did. The father believes the new generation's scholarship is less serious and not truly focused on the Talmud.
The father wins a highly prestigious award that he has pined after for decades, giving him a tremendous feeling of vindication. But the nominating committee calls the son in for a private meeting, where they say that the award was really intended for the son. They want the son himself to break the news to the father. I won't reveal what the son does.
One more complication develops, the details of which I won't get into. But still there's just not enough going on for a feature film. The directorial style is also quite flat and bare-bones. Only one sequence in the entire was fully written. Everything else is sketchy, like the script never got past the outline phase. The cinematography is completely pedestrian.
Because this short was stretched to feature length, there's quite a bit of repetition and slackness as well, as scenes are forced to go on longer than they need to. "Footnote" to me feels like a good film-school project. It demonstrates that Cedar has the talent to become a real filmmaker. I hope someday he does develop into one, learning how to write a fully developed screenplay and how to do cinematography.
"Footnote" is a wry examination of the nature of identity and how very tenuous it all is. Take for instance, Eliezer, who was robbed by fate of everything that he is and ever could be. That same potential is fully brought to fruition by his son Uriel. While his father is nothing but bitter, Uriel acts like a mensch throughout.(I have heard of daddy issues but kiddy issues?) It might come as a surprise that something as petty as a prize could change everything, including their interactions with security personnel, but in their insular world, this is huge.(Uriel's losing/having his clothes stolen in the locker room could also be part of this world shift.) So, while the movie fares well intellectually in its Introduction/Conflict/Resolution structure and a sudden ending that actually comes at just the right place, it does not connect as well on an emotional level.
"Footnote" has nothing to do with the Talmud department of Judaism yet at the same time, everything. It is a father-son relationship dramedy in which both ends of the spectrum have devoted their lives to the Talmud, and we as an audience are not necessarily expected to know what that is. But what we are expected to know is a little something about human nature, because in this department, the film is a triumph of expressing the very humane emotions such as guilt, jealousy, anger, and that crazy thing called love (although not in the romantic sense). It is an uncanny surprise of a movie in its ability to manipulate our expectations and feelings; at once it is funny, but look away and the next moment it might be painfully truthful to our internal sorrows and feelings. This is a movie that deserved bigger nominations at the Academy Awards than it received (since although it technically released in theaters early 2012, it is considered a 2011 film), whilst all it walked away with WAS a nomination, and only one at that.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is the father in the relationship. A philologist whose greatest achievement in life is being mentioned in the footnote of a popular book written by a scholarly friend of his; he is stubborn and strange, often retiring to his study wearing noise-canceling earphones to prevent the outside world from interfering with his studies, in regards to the phrasing of the Jerusalem Talmud. He has established a strong work ethic in his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), who is receiving the recognition that his father never got and is perhaps closer to being awarded the Israel Prize (the biggest scholarly honor a man can receive in the country) than he ever was. The rivalry between the father and the son - not conventional of most movie rivalries amongst family members -is established early on and carries out even further into the film when Eliezer receives a call from the assistant to the Minister of Education, telling him that he has been elected to receive the prize.
This is where the story starts to get most interesting. To tell the honest truth about the events that unfold throughout the film would be spoiling too much when speaking of most movies, but the back of the DVD "spoils" it so I guess I'm at liberty to as well. The call was really intended for Uriel, and the mistake was a simple one; they went by last names and the phone numbers were similar so they tried one, got the wrong man, although he doesn't know it yet. What follows the mix-up is an ingeniously filmed and edited meeting with the Prize committee, which runs for about fifteen perfect minutes. Uriel wants his father to be happy just once in his life, so he strikes some deals with the committee and here's where it all goes awry. That part of the story I won't "spoil" for you.
Joseph Cedar, the writer and director, was intrigued by the Talmud department when he conceived the film for its unforgiving attitude towards the very concept of mistake. "Footnote" is also unforgiving towards this concept, and this word; and the film more or less represents the attitudes present in the department that it is, as I said, all about but at the same time not. In adopting these mannerisms and themes, it is a spectacular character study; the Talmud has greatly affected the lives of both the father and the son. What are we supposed to take from it? That one should never dabble in the areas that the men are so committed to? They are both married, but the relationships they uphold with their wives are either not expounded upon or not important to the general story. Sometimes, their intellectual handicaps are used for comedy and other times for drama. This is why I call it a "dramedy".
Perhaps I feel as if my relationships with a few of my "close relatives" are conflicted. I know that the film resonated with me although I can't quite figure out why. God knows I have never had a relationship with my father like the one between Uriel and Eliezer and I don't hope to; maybe it's the idea of having such a deep, remorseless grudge against anyone. We've all had those, but "Footnote" is made for the people who still haven't forgotten (their grudge, and who it was against). It is, simply put; a thinking man's film and I loved it. Some viewers may feel slightly alienated by all the talk of the Talmud department but like I said, the film isn't so much about that. I see it as a relationship drama with a darkly comic twist more than anything, as well as a stimulating study of its characters. This is real good character acting as well. Bar Aba had not starred in a film for 20 years before this one; this is a very solid return-to-form for him, if he ever had a "form" to begin with (I have personally never heard his name mentioned). Ashkenazi is also wonderful as Uriel; bearded, intelligent, understanding, yet impatient. There's also the suggestion that the father is autistic. And it's yet another thing that hits close to home.
The man who deserves the most credit for the creation of this dexterous experience is Israeli director and writer Joseph Cedar, who served as both director and screenwriter. Shot in a dynamic style to prove that this conflict between father and son is more of an earth shattering, destructive war of minds, than ordinary squabbling, Cedar uses intense music, visual cutaways, and dramatic cinematography to relay the viewpoints of his characters. He also excels in utilizing composer Amit Poznansky's zippy score to maximum effect: Knowing exactly when for it to be implemented into the background or foreground of a scene, and when to let the tension between characters dictate the mood. Another aspect of the film which Cedar does an excellent job with, is the blending of realism and surrealism. A perfect example of this, would be a scene in which the son (Lior Ashkenazi) meets with the Israel Prize Committee, led by a realistically unlikable Micah Lewensohn. However, rather than meet inside a typical office or boardroom, to keep the conversation as secret as possible, they resolve to talk in a comically tiny closet. It's a scene that not only embodies Cedar's ability to blend the surreal with the realistic, but also serves as an encapsulation of the film itself. In this approximately 10 minute scene, comedy combines with drama, in a way that's both oddly surreal, yet still believable. Last year at Cannes, this won the Award for Best Screenplay, and when remembering this scene, it's not at all difficult to determine why.
Another reason why this film is so successful, is because of the acting. While the ensemble is very good overall (especially Alisa Rosen as the father's long suffering spouse), Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi are both incredible as the father and son respectively. Both play off each other perfectly; Bar Aba as an egotistical authoritative figure, and Ashkenazi as the passive aggressive pushover who only wants his long suffering father to have a small taste of happiness. It's an interesting dynamic that gradually changes as the film progresses, with Ashkenazi gaining more power over his father, but still choosing not to use it. These are two esteemed actors who were willing to put just as much effort into the feature as their director: Bar Aba made his triumphant return to acting after a 20 year retirement to focus on his standup career, and studied his character for six entire months. Meanwhile, Ashkenazi took Talmudic classes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to gain a better understanding of his character, and let his beard grow for eight months; even before he was given the part for the film. These actors made a huge effort to allow themselves to give better performances, as they were now equipped to understand their characters on a deeper level, and ended up giving two of the best performances seen on the screen this year.
Footnote is a masterful exploration of the competitive and crumbling relationship between a father and son who work in the same limited field (talmudic studies). With skillful direction from Israeli director Joseph Cedar, combined with incredible acting from its two leads, this is, undoubtably, one of the best films of the year so far.