Saturday, April 14, 2012

Footnote ★★★½

A Unique Look At A Father/Son Rivalry

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Relationships between father and son are complicated to say the least. The film Footnote offers a darkly comical take on that relationship by setting the story in the world of academia, specifically in the Talmudic Research Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a philologist who studies different versions of the Jerusalem Talmud adhering to a strict view of their meaning. Eliezer is an outcast because of his old-school beliefs. Years back, another Professor, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), found similar results as Eliezer in his research but published them ahead of him, leaving Eliezer’s thirty years of work now pointless. It should be noted that Eliezer’s only claim to fame is a footnote in one of his former mentor’s books that everyone except Eliezer has long since forgotten. Meanwhile, Eliezer’s son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is perhaps the most popular professor at the University, whose work does not include such a strict interpretation of Talmudic texts. Eliezer finds everything that Uriel believes in to be simple speculation and thus not worthy of his respect.

For years Eliezer has hoped to win the Israel Prize in recognition of his work and each year he has become more saddened and bitter because he never wins. Elsewhere, Uriel has made the point that as long as his father is alive and hoping to win the Israel Prize, he does not want to be recommended for the honor. When a mix up of names occurs, Eliezer is mistakenly told that he will be receiving the award he has so long hoped for, even though unbeknownst to him the award was intended to be given to Uriel.

What I love about this film is how it takes this idea of the father son strained relationship and raises the stakes to the highest level by placing true animosity on the role of the father to the son. Eliezer is a bitter old man who never got over being cheated out of his life’s work. Thirty years of work suddenly being taken away is something I think we can all sympathize with. Uriel on the other hand at first comes across as egotistical, then slowly throughout the film reveals himself to be an honorable man, still seeking his father’s respect and admiration.

There’s one scene in particular that lasts about ten minutes that I’m just in awe of. It’s got everything one could want in a movie: comedy, drama and yes, some suspense. It’s the scene where Uriel is called into the crammed office of the Israeli Prize committee to be informed of their error. In it, Uriel begs them to just give his father the award because, as Uriel states, he deserves it. One of the members on the committee is Professor Grossman, who has no intention of ever awarding Eliezer the Israel Prize. It’s a powerful scene; one that I think no matter who you are, you could sympathize with. For me, it’s the son pleading for his father in the most compassionate way that hits me hard. If it sounds like Uriel is trying to save his father’s life, well, he is. He tells the committee that if his father finds out about the error, it will likely kill him. Eliezer is a man so desperate for respect that to finally think he’s achieved it only to have it taken away would most likely drive him to suicide. Uriel, for all intents and purposes, puts his life on the line to help his father.

The whole film basically shows us the perspectives of each character; Uriel doing his best to get his father the award he deserves, and Eliezer running his mouth about his son’s “superficial” work, enraging Uriel to no end. The film is quite intense in that we never know what either character might do or say to the other. We see Uriel reaching his breaking point the more his father ridicules his profession, yet we see Eliezer’s determination to get the respect he feels his son and others have stolen from him and we’re sympathetic to both stories. It’s almost as if we either don’t know who to root for, or we’re rooting for both characters equally.

Keep in mind that this is all set within the world of academic research; a field that largely in my opinion goes under-appreciated in our country. Joseph Cedar, the director of this film does a brilliant job raising the stakes as it were and showing us how complex not only the research field is, but also how difficult the relationships between fathers and sons can be. I’m used to seeing films where the son just wants to make his father proud. Yes, there’s a large amount of that in this film and it all works. But for me, what sets this film apart from any other is the portrayal of the father whose desperate to achieve what his son has; just a little respect.

Footnote is currently playing at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills. 

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