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‘Footnote’ is study in father-son rivalry

Footnote Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-aba) has waited 20 years to win a coveted prize, but the winner is his son in “Footnote.’’ (Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 23, 2012
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Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote’’ is set in the world of Israeli academia and focuses on two Talmudic scholars, neither of whom, scholastically speaking, thinks the world of the other. The irony of that opinion is that the men who share it happen to be father and son. The father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-aba) has waited 20 years to win a prestigious prize that time has embittered him against - according to him, it goes to dilettantes and lightweights and frauds.

Still, the joyous day comes, but only, it turns out, because of a clerical error. The winner, instead, is his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), a star in his field. Cedar’s drama revolves around the dilemma the mistake presents. A retraction would devastate Eliezer. Yet having the selection committee pretending he’s the rightful winner devalues a prize he’s openly denigrated as increasingly compromised.

That’s the nut of the movie: meat for a tragic farce. But you need a steady tone to pull that off, and it’s elusive here. For 40 minutes, you think you’re watching a cheery comedy about a grouchy old man jealous of his son’s many achievements. The movie opens with Uriel giving a speech about what a great, modest guy his father is, while Eliezer sits in a state of apparent emotional constipation. The camera never leaves his face, with its furrowed forehead whose creases are deep enough to harvest olive trees.

“Footnote’’ is full of cute closeups; what, for an hour or so, seem like cute problems; and, on the soundtrack, cutely plucked strings (ploomp-ploomp, ploomp-ploomp) with woodwinds to match. Early, Eliezer sits behind his desk, the camera swoops backward, and we’re whisked into a kaleidoscopic fake-documentary that zips by as living microfiche. It enumerates and explains some things we should know about Eliezer.

For instance, his life’s work with ancient Talmudic scripts was obviated by a colleague’s lucky discovery that proved Eliezer’s thesis. The colleague published his findings first and won great acclaim while Eliezer continued to toil away in relative obscurity, teaching his course to as few as one student. His greatest source of pride is a footnote attributed to him in an important work of Talmudic scholarship. Ah, but that, the movie shouts, is all he is!

But then in one scene Cedar, whose previous film was the tense 2007 war drama “Beaufort,’’ changes the mood so powerfully that the moment upstages most of what preceded it and some of what follows. Uriel sits in a tiny conference room with various committee members and someone from legal. They hash out the stakes of that clerical error. Uriel boils over with both outraged filial devotion and fear of confronting a father who befuddles him. It’s a very good, very well-written encounter that burns away all the cuteness and cleverness and sets in motion a surprising conflation between academic dishonesty and its emotional counterpart.

The film was a nominee for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, and Cedar has a real grasp of how to create conflict and generate tension. He’s certainly a filmmaker - the movie puts some of that syrupy music to big, swelling ends. “Footnote’’ culminates with stirring gravity that you wish Cedar had the confidence - in himself, his material, and us - to sustain. Both Uriel’s dilemma and his father’s are unenviable, even as you understand the deep guilt, sense of conflict, and hubris this mix-up provokes.

It all must have been difficult terrain for Cedar, too, since he really drags his feet to get there.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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Written and directed by: Joseph Cedar

Starring: Shlomo Bar-aba and Lior Ashkenazi

At: Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and West Newton

Running time: 107 minutes

PG-13 (thematic elements, brief nudity, language and smoking)

In Hebrew, with English subtitles

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