If his own movie is any indication, it might be a good thing that Joseph Cedar didn’t win the Oscar last month for “Footnote,” the funny, fascinating Israeli movie opening Friday in the US.
Set mostly in the Talmudic studies department of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the film opens with the sort of acceptance speech that Cedar didn’t get to give — a poised, charming effort that both self-deprecates and ingratiates. Rather than the Academy Awards, the ceremony is an academic one — designed to honor the work of Uri Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), a professor both popular with students and prolific in his writing. It should be a banner evening for his father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), the much-praised subject of his son’s loving speech.
Instead, it’s abundantly clear that his son’s award doesn’t bring any pleasure to the senior Shkolnik, a bitter, resentful professor who’s had far less success than his offspring. Also a member of the Talmudic studies department, Eliezer Shkolnik is at least partly justified in his festering anger: After 30 years of painstaking research, a competitive colleague swooped in at the last minute to claim credit for his sole significant discovery. Approaching the end of a tedious, frustrating career, his lone accomplishment is being cited in a footnote by a long-dead former mentor.
Or so it seems, until his cell phone rings with unexpected news: He’s won an Israel Prize, the domestic equivalent of a Nobel handed out on national TV by the president and prime minister. His reaction to the news is like seeing “an anorexic girl who suddenly begins to eat,” remarks Dikla, his son’s wife (Alma Zak). For a professor who’s spent decades lost in obscurity, the prize is almost too good to be true.
Unfortunately, it actually is too good to be true. Unbeknownst to the elder Shkolnik, the Israel Prize was intended not for him, but for his overachieving son, and the phone call was merely the outcome of a series of mistakes resulting from their shared last name. The father doesn’t know this, but his son is soon informed, and is asked by the head of the prize committee — also his father’s bitter rival, incidentally — to explain the error to his dad.
To describe more of the plot would rob viewers of the film’s tense, comic pleasures, which culminate in an exquisitely ambiguous ending on the night of the Israel Awards.
The film touches on an impressive array of thought-provoking ideas, ranging from the Oedipal to the intellectual
In addition to its Oscar nomination, “Footnote” won the best screenplay prize at Cannes and swept the top honors at the Ophirs, Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. It’s easy to see why. In a brisk 105 minutes, the film navigates a variety of cinematic styles and sensibilities, seamlessly shifting from bouncy comedy to dark drama and back again. Without getting entangled in its overlapping themes, the film touches on an impressive array of thought-provoking ideas, ranging from the Oedipal to the intellectual.
Very little goes unnoticed by Cedar, who invests his scenes and characters with double and triple meanings, showing how one person’s understanding of an event can be transmitted to another — and then completely dismantled in a single angry argument. Cedar’s script deftly illustrates how even well-meaning parents can project their frustrations onto their children, and how wives and mothers can end up in the crossfire between husbands and sons.
Especially funny is Cedar’s satire of academia, a world where — in a phrase widely attributed to Henry Kissinger — the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” That applies in particular to an extended scene in which the younger Shkolnik is informed of the Israel Prize error and advised of his options. The setting will draw a knowing smile from anyone who’s taught or studied at an overused, underfunded university (which is to say: anyone who’s ever been affiliated with a university). Rather than a spacious office or light-filled boardroom, the scene unfolds as it might in real life: in a converted storage closet, a perfect visual metaphor for the claustrophobia of Shkolnik’s options.
All that said, the film isn’t without minor imperfections. Tonally, Cedar’s script wanders slightly off course during a sitcom-y sequence that features Shkolnik Jr. wandering around campus in a fencer’s uniform. It’s possible Shkolnik pere is simply an unpleasant person, but a little more depth wouldn’t have hurt the character, who comes across as a fairly unbearable mouth breather.
But nitpicking aside, “Footnote” represents another happy accomplishment for Israel’s film industry, which has produced four Oscar-nominated movies in the past five years (including one for “Beaufort,” Cedar’s previous effort).
The movie reflects particularly well on its writer/director, who moved with his family from New York to Israel at age 5, and here reveals a deft touch for comedy, a genre he’s largely avoided until now. It would be more than reasonable for Israelis to hope his next movie will win that elusive Oscar — but as the story of the Shkolniks suggests, he may just be better off without it.