April 17, 2012

MOVIES: Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011/US 2012)

The Israeli film Footnote was one of last year's Best Foreign Film nominees. It opens on Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a Talmudic scholar who is something like the Susan Lucci of his field; he's been nominated for the Israel Prize more than a dozen times over the last twenty years, but has never won. Part of that can be written off to his choice of research subjects -- he has devoted his life to analyzing the tiniest minutiae of historical textual changes -- but it seems also to be the result of Eliezer's prickly and combative personality.

Eliezer's son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has entered into the same field of study, but targets his work to "sexier" issues within the field, and is already receiving a warmer reception from his colleagues than his father ever did. The rivalry and resentment between the two is unspoken, but it runs very deep.

The story kicks into gear when Eliezer receives a call with the unexpected news that he has finally won the Israel Prize. The ramifications of that phone call only increase the tensions between the Professors Shkolnik.

As dry and academic as the subject matter may seem, Footnote is a very funny movie. There are some marvelous comic set pieces -- a carefully choreographed meeting of seven scholars in an office too small to hold them, a thrilling montage of one man finding the answer to a personal crisis by doing the most important textual analysis of his life (Amit Poznansky's score is particularly effective in that scene).

The movie benefits from terrific casting of the two leads; both characers have moments when they are entirely sympathetic and moments when they behave despicably. Both performances are largely internal; neither man is particularly communicative or expressive, and it's largely left to their families and colleagues to read between the lines. (Now that I think of it, I don't remember a single scene in which they speak directly to one another.)

There's a brief scene in which the family attends a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, and the movie shares with that musical the idea that God is capable of being a rather nasty prankster, and that a big part of life is how we deal with the cosmic jokes He throws at us. It's a delightful movie, well worth seeking out if it makes its way to your city.

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