Even in the world of academia, nice guys finish last. Or so suggests Joseph Cedar’s bitterly hilarious “Footnote,” a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee set in the tightly-knit and apparently fiercely combative world of Talmud scholarship.
It’s the kind of movie that tells us enough about the characters early on so that we know exactly how much to squirm with each plot development.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a popular star in his academic circles, much to the unspoken resentment of his father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba). Where Uriel is personable and camera-ready, the grumpy Eliezer prefers library basements or working at home in a bubble of silence created by those ear protectors used on airport runways.
While Uriel publishes books, gives well-attended lectures, and has laurels heaped upon him, Eliezer’s main claim to fame is a footnote in one of the essential texts of Talmudic scholarship. Still, Uriel tries to keep the peace and always gives credit to his father’s inspiration, even when such encouragement never took place.
When Eliezer gets the call that, after 20 years of nominations, he’s finally going to receive the prestigious Israel Prize for his scholarship, it appears that his life’s work of comparing minute differences between translations of the Torah are finally being appreciated. Except there’s one problem — a government bureaucrat made a mistake and called the wrong Shkolnik.
Uriel is horrified to learn that he, and not his father, is the actual winner, and when he tries to get the judges to give the honor to Eliezer instead, jury chair Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) — whose own prize-winning publication beat Eliezer’s thesis to print by a month, thus invalidating decades of the latter’s work — refuses. At first, anyway.
The rest of the wonderfully twisted plot should come as a surprise, but suffice it to say that Uriel’s attempts to do right by his father brings nothing but heartbreak his way, much of it supplied directly by the embittered Eliezer, who’s so socially awkward and self-enclosed that Grossman refers to him as Uriel’s “autistic father.”
One of the most interesting aspects of “Footnote” is that this material could, with just a few edits, be a serious and downbeat drama. But it’s Cedar’s knowing satire of academic politics (aided greatly by the sprightly and circus-like score by Amit Poznansky) that keeps the proceedings pungently bubbly. Balancing cringes with chuckles is tricky business, but Cedar (whose previous features haven’t gotten significant play in the U.S.) makes it look easy.
It helps that he’s got such a talented cast, anchored by Bar-Aba and the woolly Ashkenazi. Uriel’s ability to pivot from general cordiality to his slow-burn response to Eliezer’s resentment and indifference makes for compelling viewing.
American filmmakers tend to avoid academics and intellectuals, except as villains or the butts of jokes. (They apparently prefer to leave that ivory-tower stuff to novelists, most of whom toil away at universities as their day job.) But “Footnote” demonstrates how power plays, even in the most obscure corners of scholarship, can be as compelling and as messy as any presidential campaign or Oscar competition, especially when you throw in a fascinatingly awkward father-son dynamic.