Footnote (2011) – Joseph Cedar

Footnote (2011) is a funny and sad movie about ego and pride and prizes. It tells the tale of the two Professor Shkolniks, father and son, who work in the same very serious (and very political, it seems) field of Talmudic research. We first see them side by side, son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) and father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) as an unseen speaker introduces one of them before receiving an academic laudation. We assume the honor is for the older man because the speaker lists a lengthy career of accomplishments and because Eliezer has a look on his face of stoic modesty. But at the end of the introduction the son rises and leaves his father behind. The camera stays on Eliezer, however, and during Uriel’s acceptance speech the look of stoic modesty reveals itself as one of bitter jealousy.

Eliezer spent three decades of his formidable years researching a universally accepted strain of text that he found to be problematic. He pored through book after book building a case against this sacred cow until, just weeks before he was prepared to publish, another researcher released findings based on a single document that virtually rendered Eliezer’s work unnecessary. In fact, it’s possible to suggest that, despite his hard work, Eliezer’s greatest professional accomplishment is being mentioned in a footnote of a watershed study. After that, he drifted into a acrid spiral of meanness and spite, deriding the awards he’s routinely passed up for and becoming the professor all the students avoid.

At the same time Uriel has scaled the heights of academic prestige and acclaim, earning honors in the middle of his career that are usually reserved for the conclusion. Uriel is gracious in his acceptance, but he can’t quite hide his vainglory, just as Eliezer has trouble concealing his frustration. Eliezer spends most of his time growling at his students or isolating himself underneath headgear that appears to be headphones until it’s revealed that they are simply mufflers to dampen all sound, like one would wear at a shooting range. He is not a happy man. In fact, a title card informs us that the day Uriel receives the honor that opens the movie is the unhappiest day of Eliezer’s life.

All that changes when Eliezer receives a call informing him that he has been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. A metaphysical weight is lifted from him. “He looks like an anorexic girl who’s suddenly begun to eat,” a character says about him. Uriel seems genuinely pleased, but there’s a hint that envy is genetic. In conversation, he puts forth his gladness for his father but then quickly wonders who the nominating committee for the prize was or what qualifications they used to recommend his father.

The committee calls Uriel asking to speak with him, and he brusquely blows them off, telling them that whatever they need they can get from Eliezer. The committee presses and he agrees to meet with them and their president Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), an old rival of Eliezer’s, whose serious face is punctuated by a magnificent forehead, like that of a  SharPei, besot with the crags and crevices of a deep thinker. It seems that the committee made a mistake and the congratulatory phone call went to the wrong Professor Shkolnik. Uriel is the true winner of the Israel Prize; Eliezer was the beneficiary of an error. “This will literally kill him,” Uriel says, revealing more perception about his father’s jealousy than we previously registered. Uriel instructs the committee that they must see it through, that his father is a worthy candidate anyway and the humiliation of taking the award away is indecent. “Bloodshed,” Uriel insists. Grossman won’t have it; he’s spent too much time blocking Eliezer to see him sneak in now. Either the mistake is corrected or Grossman will resign, publicly, opening the committee to lawsuits.

To this point Footnote has been rather funny, subtly jabbing the petty nature of some who care about these types of awards and ribbing the pomposity that can exist in intellectual circles. At the moment of this crisis, which divides the movie into halves, the movie becomes a warm and pensive story of decency and pride as the two Shkolniks embark on an O’Henryesque journey away from each other. Uriel discovers some of the nobility in deferring glory, but Eliezer uses his presumed victory as more coal for his fire against the world.

As Uriel becomes more steadfast in his resolve to allow his father to be awarded the prize, going as far as making an important sacrifice for Grossman, Eliezer uses the platform of the increased attention upon him to further trash institutions like the Israel Prize itself and the work of others he finds to be beneath his own, including his son’s. This is devastating to Uriel and the movie makes a comment on the circular nature of bitterness, as a dejected Uriel, once so warm with his students, begins to resemble Eliezer, petulantly tearing down their work simply because he can. As the movie closes, there’s a danger that Eliezer may learn of the mistake that was made and the movie concludes on an ambiguous note.

Footnote tells a good story and some scenes crackle with energy, an impressive feat when many of the confrontations are over different lessons of rabbinical scholarship, a subject I would think only a small percentage of the audience will be overly familiar with, though it’s real target is more universal, which is a human desire for credit. Joseph Cedar’s direction is very fine, mostly light and bouncy but heavy when needed. There’s a sequence that reminded me of thriller scenes in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Coppola’s The Conversation (1973) as Eliezer receives a piece of information that could be a clue to the true nature of his honor. The score by Amit Poznansky is appropriate for the early light sections but doesn’t change its tune and becomes distracting during the weightier moments. 

I would have liked to see the movie penetrate deeper into what went wrong with these people that they can’t be happy for each other’s success, especially as they’re related, but it does include plenty of poignancy as Uriel takes the mix-up as an opportunity to grow up and Eliezer does the opposite. Though given little screen time, their wives offer great insight into the meaninglessness of these awards, as both father and son seem to be oblivious that the people closest to them don’t care at all whether they’re married to a recipient of the Israel Prize or not. These people can find the smallest inconsistencies in ancient texts, but they can’t see that. 

Leave a Reply