Sympathy for the Devil in the Details, by David Bax
Joseph Cedar’s Footnote will likely prove to be popular with those who enjoy the postmodern insouciance and cool craftsmanship of the Coen brothers. And as with the Coens, it would be easy to accuse Cedar of being willfully cruel to his characters. Perhaps those accusations would be true but only because the director is so concerned with being honest about them. Still, unpleasantness reigns in this film.
Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are a father and son in the same profession. Namely, they are both Talmudic scholars. Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), despite decades of dedication, has been mostly forgotten among his peers, his only true claim having been cited in a footnote in the published work of a more respected colleague. The life’s work that should have brought him endless respect was overshadowed when another researcher got there first. Meanwhile, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a rising star in the field, receiving prizes and attention. Then one day, Eliezer gets a phone call telling him he’s being awarded the Israel Prize and the recognition he believes he has earned. It would be unfair to tell you what happens after that.
Before that, though, in the opening scene, Eliezer steps out for a breath of fresh air while attending a party celebrating his son’s latest award. Upon attempting to return, he is stopped by security for not having the proper wristband. There he stands in the cold, his breath steaming, looking in through the glass doors at his confederates, forgotten, while they drink and clap each other on the back. The elder Shkolnik is obstinate, to be sure, but this scene of humiliation is all we need to give him our sympathy.
That sympathy is deepened by the following sequence, in which we are shown, through flashback and voiceover, how Eliezer got to where he is. We see him working ferociously on the translation which was to be his life’s great work. Then we see another, fully translated version emerge, having been discovered by Eliezer’s counterpart and rival, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn). Grossman rides this discovery to notoriety within their community and becomes a powerful figure as a resort. Then, because of grudges only half understood, he uses that power to keep Eliezer from attaining success.
By this point, in the film, we are on Eliezer’s side perhaps as much as we possibly could be. He may be grumpy but wouldn’t you be too? Then he receives that fateful phone call. He will finally get everything he believes has been coming to him. Suddenly, he has the confidence to express himself freely and those expressions are not what we have come to expect. His antagonism toward his son grows instead of lessening as he comes to believe that he now has proof that he is the better scholar. We begin to understand that Grossman may have more legitimate reasons for holding a grudge than the ones Eliezer has offered.
The joys of watching Footnote come chiefly from the actors, all of whom – but especially the three mentioned so far – inhabit their roles with a completeness of mind and body. You see who these people are not only in their words and actions but in their brows and their knuckles. Lewensohn gives a particularly commanding performance. He is both a tweedy and sensitive academic and an immovable, intimidating rock of a man.
Cedar displays some remarkable talent behind the camera as well, most notably when it comes to comedy. Footnote is a sardonic film that occasionally allows itself some unadulterated silliness. The scene wherein Uriel meets with the Israel Prize selection committee in a room that would be too small for three people, let alone the half dozen crammed in there, is practically a great sketch unto itself. Yet Cedar also knows how to cut the humor off effectively in a moment of despair, solemnity or intensity.
Frustratingly, though, there are many instances where Cedar doesn’t know how to pull back or doesn’t care to. He ladles on flashy, conspicuous touches, such as a schizophrenic editing style and the cheeky use of title cards designed to look like microfilm. Add to that an entertaining but sometimes inappropriately bombastic score by Amit Poznansky and this film about a handful of aging college professors becomes uncomfortably noisy.
In many ways, this movie exasperated me. It’s almost as if, despite his obvious talents, the director was daring me to enjoy his film. As a result, I can’t say I can recommend Footnote but, like its main characters, there’s a lot to like about it when it wants you to like it.