Footnote: Israel’s Oscar Nominee

(Hearat Shulaim)

A highlight of Israeli cinema of the past several years, “Footnote,” Joseph Cedar’s intelligent, intriguing and complex family drama, set within the country’ academic world, has deservedly won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, where it had premiered in May.

An official selection of both the Toronto (in September) and New York Film (in October) Festivals, “Footnote” will be released theatrically by the estimable Sony Classics.

Make sure to watch this original film by a gifted director who has only made good films, beginning in 2001 with “Time of Favor,” and coninuing with “Campire” in 2004 and “Beaufort” in 2007, his best picture todate.

Aptly titled, “Footnote” weaves a sharply written satire, informed by an overtly Freudian psychology, positing a father and his son in a dramatic conflict based on a fierce rivalry that threatens to tear the whole family apart, not to  mention Israel’s scholarly milieu and its most estimable prize.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are both eccentric professors, albeit in different ways, at the prestigious Hebrew University (the country’s oldest higher education institution).  Both men have dedicated their lives to their work in Talmudic Studies, though it’s unclear to ehat extent the father served as role model for his son.

Though sharing interest in a similar intellectual field, the two men could not have been more different in approach, scholarship style, personality, and need (or lack of) for peer recognition and cultural reputation.

A reticent man, the father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a stubborn purist who fears the establishment and has never been recognized for his work for reasons that become later as the story unfolds.

In contrast, his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a handsome, ambitious, up-and-coming star in the field, who appears to crave for and feed on accolades, endlessly seeking recognition, which he seems to get.

Then one day, the tables turn abruptly as a result of a minor clerical error.  When Eliezer learns that he is to be awarded the Israel Prize, the most valuable honor for scholarship in the country, his vanity and desperate need for validation are finally tasted and exposed.

Meanwhile, on the surface, his son Uriel claims that he’s thrilled to see his father’s achievements finally recognized by the establishment.

As writer, Cedar has crafted an endlessly shifting narrative, with twists and turns that justify labeling the film as a thriller.  He’s also shrewd enough to imbue the tale with darkly humorous tone, which make the film effective as a serious melodrama, poignant satire (and for some perhaps even comedy).

Though “Footnote” is set in a very particular milieu, it also examines more universal issues, such as the nature, price, and effects of competition in scientific endeavor,  loyalty and devotion to one’s career versus family.  In the movie, Uriel faces the moral dilemma of being forced to choose between the advancement of his own career and that of his father.

Cedar keeps us guessing up to the very end whether or not there will be an explicit confrontation between father and son.  He also builds and maintains sustained suspense as to whether or not Uriel will sabotage his father’s glory, as a result of being torn between pride and envy.

Going way beyond the specific field of the two protagonists, the movie asks us to weigh our needs and obligations as sons (and family members) versus needs and duties as individualistic, career-driven professionals.

Oscar Context:

Footnote was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but did not win. The winner that year was the Iranian feature, A Separation.