The Israeli drama Footnote, which lost to A Separation in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar category, concerns professors engaged in Talmudic research. It’s the smallest department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, infamous for its uncompromising methods and general stubbornness, even within the annals of academia. The film’s real subject, however, is as equally rare in cinema: A rivalry between father and son based not on earth-quaking drama but rather something as small and pissy as ego.
The opening minutes of Joseph Cedar’s latest finds the camera gradually zeroing in on Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar’aba), an aging philologist, as his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi, Late Marriage), receives the accolades that have eluded him his entire career. Eliezer is not happy for his spawn’s achievement; you can all but see the fumes emanating from his body. He’s the kind of academic other academics hate; “only four people in the world know what he’s doing,” it’s said of his work, which has never approached a coherent conclusion.
When Eliezer abruptly receives a call informing him he’s the laureate of the coveted Israel Prize—for which he has competed, pointlessly, for 20 years—it seems too good to be true. And it is: A clerical catastrofuck has ensued and the true recipient is, of course, the far more successful Uriel. Suddenly, the task falls to Uriel to either destroy the spirit of the father who offers him nothing but bitter jealousy, or maintain the ruse and destroy his own career.
Cedar pitches Footnote as a comedy with a dramatic foundation, starting with the casting of Bar’aba, a comic actor returning after a 20-year hiatus, whose every fiber screams curmudgeon. There’s something bleakly funny about a father resenting his son for being more successful at the same profession, especially once Eliezer uses his newfound attention primarily to character-assassinate him and his modern methods. At its best, Footnote deserves comparison with, of all filmmakers, Bobcat Goldthwait, whose work treads upon similarly under-explored dark alleys of human relations. On the other side is its finale, which mistakes an open ending for something other than a sudden failure of imagination.