Footnote, (2011) by Israeli director Joseph Cedar promises an interesting story of father-son tension in the hermetic world of Talmudic scholarship at Hebrew University, and almost delivers. The real problem is that of all stories of small worlds: how small can it be before it fails to connect with human universals?
Eliezer Shkolnik [Shlomo Bar-Aba] is a senior professor who has spent thousands of hours, his entire academic life, tracking down changes in the Talmud, as preached around Europe for centuries, to come up with the idea that the received version now in use in Israel is not the original. Just as he was ready to draw his conclusions in an Talmud shattering revelation, a Professor Grossman, [Micah Lewensohn] a colleague — and competitor– happens upon a complete copy of the original, lost, text, which Shkolnik has spend so many decades excavating. The honor and the glory goes to Grossman.
Meanwhile, his son, Uriel Shkolnik [Lior Ashkenazi], has become a well known Talmud expert in his own right, but as far as the father is concerned, completely at the opposite end of the spectrum — a popularizer! Not a scientist at all! In a raw revelation — almost insensate– to a magazine, he calls his son’s work, worthless.
The explosive center of the film is when the older man receives a telephone call that he has finally — after twenty years of being nominated– been awarded the Israeli Prize, a prize which in recent years he has denigrated as no longer serious. Even so, his sense of just-dues, not to say real pride, is palpable. The problem is, as revealed in a tour-de-force committee meeting in a room not much bigger than a walk-in closet, that the prize had actually been awarded to the son. The father was called by mistake. The committee wants the son to tell them how to rectify the error. The chairman, Grossman, in fact thinks the old man’s work is useless and won’t hear of proceeding with the wrong award.
The comic-sad story of Uriel trying to do his best by a father who has little regard for him begins the film as he praises his father at a gathering the old man can not bear. It continues as he tries to work out a way to save the old man’s pride — even his life, as he exclaims in a shouting match with Grossman. We are kept from fully appreciating his filial respect, however, when we see him treating his own son in a mirror of his father to himself. [Certain glances from the older man to a portrait on his office wall suggest the presence of his own father and the endless chain of father-son tension.]
All stories have to be set in a recognizable time and place to cohere at all, and to have a ring of authenticity in the characters, their emotions, interests and responses to others. That time and place can be a rain swollen creek and coffin traversing Mississippi, an unhappy provincial doctor’s wife who longs for the excitement of Paris, or a guilty murderer in Moscow but in each case readers are drawn in by recognizable, if heightened human emotions, and a sustained interest in situations they will never actually experience, except by the immersion in the imaginative world of the author. Can the 50 year pursuit of philological minutia in versions of the Talmud, and the importance of it to one man, do the same?
The director seems to recognize the problem in the mixed characterization he delivers. For most people in the world, for most Israelis I’d venture, such a life, if not ascribed to a deeply holy man, is trivial beyond description. And so, in many scenes Eliezer is portrayed as a comically odd recluse. Amit Poznansky’s score, as Eliezer is walking to his office in a quick-step, bent over way, has a circus-y tempo and instrumentation, with brass, timpani and strings, giving way to more mournful notes and then a return to a sad jauntiness reminiscent of a crestfallen Chaplain. If Eliezer were that Chaplain the film might have brought us into an empathetic relation with him. But he is too mean. “Austistic,” as his daughter-in-law refers to him in an exchange with Uriel. Unspeaking to most, and unappreciative of those around him.
And what about the women? Eliezer’s wife, as stolid and symbolic of an old-world Jewish matron as you could wish doesn’t say a word. At an important moment in the film she breaks the two-bedroom policy they have devolved to and lies beside him — in sympathy for he knows not what.
Uriel’s wife [Alma Zack] while much more connected to her husband, shown in several pillow talks about serious matters, offers a challenge to his self respect so great that it’s hard to believe he doesn’t take her up on it. The only reason he hadn’t had an affair, she tells him, is not because he loves her, as he claims, but because he is a coward — afraid of the conflict.
And there is a “mystery” woman who Uriel sees talking quietly with his smiling father [the only smile we see,] but about whom we never know anything.
Not that it’s a bad film, just that there seems to be minor little gem waiting out of reach. Instead of just missing connections with anyone, we need to have just made them. With the puzzles it left me, I felt like I had a Rubik’s cube in my hand too small to get my fingers to grip, and so I lost interest. Almost worth going for, however, just to be amazed by, is Grossman’s head, as furrowed as a well turned potato patch, as he glowers across the table in the committee meeting.