Movie Review: “Footnote”

3starsScholarship, my favorite grad school professor preached, is “like building a wall. You do it brick by brick.”

In “Footnote,” Eliezer Shkolnik has spent his entire life with those bricks. You’d think this Talmudic philologist would have a wall all his own, by now.

But no. The bulk of his research was one-upped by a colleague, and now the Israeli scholar’s greatest claim to fame is a single footnote in the definitive book on the subject, one written by his late mentor.

A bitter, bookish old man, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), he spends his days in the library stacks, poring over copies of the Hebrew bible, looking for inconsistencies between drafts, and quietly fuming over the great scholarly “Israel Prize,” given out by the state academy, that has eluded him for decades. There are hints of blackballing, of Eliezer’s status as an ostracized outsider.

Adding insult to that, he has to pretend to be thrilled at each new laurel tossed at his son’s feet. Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is the TV and guest-lecture friendly scholar, the wit, beloved by students, peers and TV interviewers, a wag who tells anecdotes about the “cultural fortress” his meticulous, no-nonsense dad built in their home.

Then, everything changes. Dad gets the call. He’s won! His wife whispers that he’s “like an anorexic who suddenly begins to eat.” Eliezer almost breaks into a smile. His bricks are being acknowledged.

Pity about the mix-up with the prize, the academic cover-up and all the soul-searching that follows.

Joseph Cedar’s slow, dry tragi-comedy is about academic infighting, fathers and sons and that moment in old age when you take stock and wonder what it is you’ve accomplished. Cedar rather needlessly breaks the film into titled chapters — “The Most Difficult Day in the Life of Professor Shklonick,” “The Revenge of Professor Shkolnick.” They promise a rather more lively movie than this quiet, thoughtful and occasionally comical Israeli film (in Hebrew with English subtitles).

Dad has to fend of questions about jealousy with quips from the Babylonian Talmud.

“A man can be jealous of anyone but his son or his pupil.”

Uriel, for whom things seem to come too easily, must sum up his father’s work and decide on its true value — not easy for any son. He’s easier going than his dad, but gives a lecture to his own son, Josh (Daniel Markovich) that makes the kid quake in his slacker sandals, about what it means for a father to “give up on” his lazy son.

“Footnote” is every bit as dry as its title, but Cedar keeps us engrossed with clever feints and mis-direction plays, with the vivid, starchy characters and with the world which the film captures — an arcane universe of scholarship where the real walls these people build are the ones they use to keep others out.

 

MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements, brief nudity, language and smoking

Cast:Lior Ashkenazi, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Aliza Rosen, Alma Zack

Credits: Written and directed by Joseph Cedar.  A Sony Classics release.

Running time: 1:43

 

 

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