The Israeli contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards, Footnote is a weighty dark comedy played out between two competing academics who bring out the worst in each other as they strive for recognition in their narrowest of narrow disciplines – the comparative linguistics of ancient Jewish texts. But don’t run away yet – the two also happen to be father and son, making this a fraught family affair built around two wonderfully intractable characters competing for the same academic prize.
A professor at the Talmudic Research department of the University of Jerusalem, elderly Eliezer Shkolik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has spent his lifetime in diligent research. A fanatical purist who scorns modern approaches to research as shallow and self-serving, he has managed to annoy everyone for thirty years and has consequently been overlooked his entire career. His only formal recognition is a small footnote in another work, the publication of which made his entire research redundant. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) – also a professor in the same department – has a different approach, publishing popular books rapidly and actively seeking attention. Both are contenders for the most distinguished award available to the nation’s academics – the coveted Israel Prize – the bitter Elizier believing he has been passed over many times, whilst the confident Uriel naturally assuming it will be coming his way.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar sets up his story slowly, allowing detailed insights into the scholarly father and son who then are pushed to their ethical limits by the twists and turns of the deliciously erudite plot. Exploring notions of truth and – more cleverly – the identification and consequences of textual errors, this is an involved piece of filmmaking, made manageable through the warm and totally compelling performances of the two lead actors. The rich music and on-screen text add to the density of the piece, which comes to a spectacular climax in a scene set in a way-too tiny room where the committee for the Israel Prize have gathered to finalise their decision.
Cedar – who studied philosophy at the University of Jerusalem himself – clearly imparts personal passion into his screenplay, although it’s unwieldy in places and frequently wordy. But he has also created two complex and charismatic characters who cannot get away from each other by virtue of blood and whose conflicting ways of being in the world are the reason for the film’s success on the international circuit.