A story about two professors of Talmudic studies may not sound the most promising scenario for a night at the movies, but Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, which was nominated for an Oscar this year, will surprise the sceptics.
While it is hard to believe, even in Israel, that a Talmudic scholar could become a public intellectual, meet handsome, vigorous Uriel Shkolnik – prolific author, popular lecturer, a rising star of academe. The young professor’s father, Eliezer Shkolnik, represents the more conventional view of a Talmudist. He is an old-style philologist who has spent his entire career researching variant texts in the national library.
Professor Shkolnik senior, played with consummate grumpiness by Shlomo Bar Aba, is an old curmudgeon. His existence has been blighted by the fact that a chance discovery in a European library, by a rival, Professor Grossman (Michah Lewesohn), meant his decades of painstaking research were rendered irrelevant overnight. Over the years he has become increasingly bitter, as he watches his discipline being inflitrated by new theoretical and historical approaches.
One of the chief offenders is his own son, Uriel, played by Lior Ashkenazi. As the son’s reputation blossoms the father becomes increasingly resentful. Shkolnik senior’s major source of pride is his appearance in a footnote in a standard reference book by a renowned Talmudic expert. His gnawing ambition is to win the Israel Prize, which has been awarded every year since 1953 to high achievers in the fields of art, science and scholarship.
After having been passed over on an annual basis the Israel Prize has become a fetish and a source of simmering anger. Eliezer needs it to justify the hermetic way he has spent his life. The fact that the judges seem to prefer younger, more trendy candidates is taken as a personal insult because these recipients barely qualify as scholars in his eyes. He has become a vehement critic of the system who no longer bothers to disguise his bitterness.
While the father’s lonely researches have not resulted in a single worthwhile publication, the son is energetic and addicted to the limelight. He is becoming known as a leader in the field, with a growing sense of his own power and prestige.
Footnote takes the Old Testament theme of rivalry between father and son, and works it into a droll, black comedy of academia. The story proceeds along predictable lines, but this is not especially important as the strength of the film lies in an excellent script and convincing characterisation.
Cedar, who is both director and screenwriter, has described Footnote as a tragedy, and this is not a misnomer. One may view Eliezer’s whole life as a tragic waste of time, which has warped his personality. Uriel, afflicted by the sin of pride, has his own tragic dilemma. He will be chastened and humiliated when he tries to act unselfishly.
Uriel struggles to convince himself that he loves his father, but Shkolnik senior does not inspire much affection in anyone, including his wife Dikla (Alma Zack), who has been worn down by his relentless devotion to his work. Uriel’s wife, Yehudit (Aliza Rosen) is less accommodating, accusing her husband of cowardice.
We understand that the son’s brilliant career is also his way of killing the father, but this is a piece of Oedipal theatre repeated in every family. Ultimately it is Eliezer’s self-centredness that takes one’s breath away. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn him into a comic character, but he has been too damaged by years of professional neglect. He can blame it on bad luck and the scheming of his enemies, but one suspects the professor’s dedication conceals a terminal mediocrity.
One irony follows another, but by the end of the film Shlomo Bar Aba’s portrayal of Eliezer seems almost too grimly resentful. He has not demonstrated any finer characteristics even though he knows he is experiencing a hollow victory. The moment of triumph is also the moment of self-annihilation, and he goes through the motions like a sleepwalker.
Take away the Jewish trappings and the music, which is often intrusive rather than sympathetic, and Footnote is a story of universal appeal. Its originality lies in the combination of a father and son rivalry with the intense conflicts that go on within the cloistered world of the university and seem so obscure to outsiders. It does not require psychoanalysis – another great Jewish invention – to show that the ferocity of an academic dispute may have deeper motivations. A lifetime spent in the library is no guarantee one will always act in a rational manner.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 28, 2012
Footnote, Israel, rated PG, 105 mins