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A father and son duke it out in 'Footnote'

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Two men sit side-by-side in the front row of a throng of people, listening to the introduction of one Professor Shkolnik, who is being accepted into the National Israel Academy of Sciences. The younger man is in a suit, bearded and bespectacled, his expression soft and warm. The other sits glaring at the floor, dressed in a well-worn sweater with wild, uncombed hair. Both, it just so happens, are Professor Shkolnik; it’s the former that is being honored this evening. It turns out both father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) have devoted their lives to the Talmud, though it’s the son that ultimately earns all the recognition.

Eliezer Shkolnik studies the ancient Jewish text like a scientist, meticulously gathering information and cataloging his findings. The result of all his hard work is a single footnote in Introduction to Text Versions of Talmudic Literature mentioning him by name. His son Uriel, on the other hand, is a pop scholar, writing books about “marital relations in the Talmudic era” and deftly navigating the political waters of academia. When an administrative error grants Eliezer the Israel Prize, an award he’s coveted his entire career, it comes to Uriel’s attention that he was actually the intended recipient of the honor, leaving him to wonder if the revelation will destroy his already tenuous relationship with his father.

The cinematic tricks tossed around throughout the film could easily come off as irritating or distracting, but writer/director Joseph Cedar slips in faux-documentary-style exposition and dramatic, animated text that further develop the story. While making a film about research entertaining could prove difficult, Cedar pulls it off without pulling any fast ones. Nothing feels too flashy or unnecessary, thanks to the film’s knack for fluidly blending quick cuts with long, thoughtful shots. The cinematography and the editing work beautifully with one another, each stepping into the spotlight when the story deems it necessary.

The same sort of balancing act is seen in the performances, which are altogether humorous, complex, and tortured, in a way. Bar-Aba’s Eliezer is flustered, cruel, and frustrated with his humble fate, but he’s genuinely funny too. As he sits in his office, bright yellow heavy-duty headphones over his ears to cut out unwanted distractions, his rapid-fire blinks and perpetual scowl earn laughs without sacrificing his character’s integrity. And when the haughty academic Uriel finds himself traipsing across campus in a fencing uniform, it could go for the same eye-rolling quirkiness of Little Miss Sunshine, but the humor is much more subtle and thus less forced.

While this isn’t always at the top of one’s list when it comes to good filmmaking, the sound design is excellent, and it further highlights how strong the film is as a whole. Via audio, Footnote drops the viewer into the inner, emotional world of its characters, and it does so with slight shifts in level for different tracks. During that first award scene, for one, Eliezer sits watching his son onstage with bitter resignation. The sound of the speech dominates, but as the camera closes in on Eliezer, Uriel’s disembodied voice lowers in volume, sounding farther and farther away. Though most of the scene is captured in a single shot, the audio steps up to reveal more details about the relationship between the father and son.

Footnote received the Best Screenplay award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and it was nominated for a 2012 Oscar as Best Foreign Film (it lost to Iran’s A Separation), and it should come as no surprise. Though stylized, the film remains true to itself and to its characters, and seeing everything unfold is certainly entertaining (and sometimes excruciating — in a good way — as when Uriel struggles with breaking the news to his father that his beloved Israel Prize doesn’t actually belong to him). Unlike Eliezer, Footnote has drawn quite a bit of praise since its debut, and unlike Uriel, it’s been worthy of every moment in the limelight.

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

Footnote
Dir. And writ. Joseph Cedar; feat. Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Aliza Rosen. (PG)

 

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