Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Review: Footnote

Footnote *** ½
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel Shkolnik), Shlomo Bar-Aba (Eliezer Shkolnik), Alma Zack (Dikla Shkolnik), Aliza Rosen (Yehudit), Micah Lewensohn (Grossman), Daniel Markovich (Josh).

We all want recognition for what we do. We like to think that we are somehow special, and deserving of praise. For some, it’s as simple as the recognition of a parent – and for some, they need recognition from larger external forces. It`s natural to want to be recognized for what you do – to feel appreciated and loved. But you can take that desire too far – and fighting for that recognition can destroy the things that are actually important.
The Israeli film Footnote is about many things, but the man one is about the complex, competitive relationship between fathers and sons, and that desire to be recognized. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic scholar in Israel, who spent 30 years of his life researching the difference between the modern texts, and what was written about them at the time by intellectuals. He spent all those years compiling the differences, and just before he was about to publish his findings, a rival found an original text, which proved all of Eliezer`s findings to be true, but published his findings first – thus making Eliezer`s findings moot. He continues to research, but he is largely forgotten – that other scholar, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) has got all the acclaim and recognition, and Eliezer has got none.

Eliezer`s son is Uriel (Lior Ashekenazi), who is also a Talmudic scholar. But while Eliezer has spent his career looking for minute differences and as a result has not published much, Uriel has become a famous academic – publishing numerous books, that become bestsellers, and he has garnered the type of awards and recognition his father could only dream of. But instead of being proud of his son, Eliezer is resentful – he barely speaks to his son, even at an event where Uriel receives a huge honor, and in his speech does nothing but praise his father. But Eliezer will have none of it. When he gets a phone call telling him he has won the biggest prize in the country, he finally feels honored to have been recognized for his achievement. What he doesn’t know is that the call was an accident – they were looking for the other Professor Shkolnik – his son. And when he finds out that it was him, and not his father, who won the prize, he is torn. On one hand, he wants the prize, because it means so much. On the other hand, he knows losing the prize will destroy his father, and whatever relationship he has with him. But is that even something worth saving.

Footnote is a winning comedy, not because it makes us laugh out loud all that often, but because the humor is organic to the characters – it grows out of them. There is a wonderful comic set piece, where about 5 people too many are crammed into a small conference room, where every time wants to get up and leave the room – which happens often – there is a struggle, chairs crashing into each, people sucking in. It is a wonderful scene full of physical comedy worthy of the Marx brothers. And yet, the scene is also heartfelt, and deadly serious. This is when Uriel is told that he should have won the Israel prize, and they need to find a way to tell his father about it. The comedy is real, but so is the mixture of emotions.

The performances help a lot. Lior Ashkenazi is excellent as Uriel, a man we immediately like and feel sympathy for, but as the movie progresses, he becomes more unglued – not that he flips out, but his pettiness and anger come to the forefront. Shlomo Bar-Aba is just as good as Eliezer. One character refers to him as almost autistic, and that’s a good description. He’s not comfortable unless he is completely in control of his surroundings and is lost in his research. He is lost in social situations. Aliza Rosen, who plays Yehudit, the wife of Eliezer, and mother to Uriel, is caught in a nearly impossible situation – especially when she is let in on the secret. We keep expect her to do something, but she is frozen – caught between these two men who she loves, but is powerless to bring together. And finally, there is Micah Lewensohn, who plays the petty Grossman, who is exactly the type of intellectual you expect to see. For him, it is not enough that he has gotten more prestige than his rival Eliezer – he needs to destroy him. Grossman has gotten all the recognition he could ever want – but it still angers him all these years that Eliezer was the only one cited by name in the footnotes of their mutual mentor’s ground-breaking book.

Cedar wisely chooses to end Footnote without the scene we have been expecting since the beginning of the movie – the conflict between Uriel and Eliezer. Instead, he chooses to end the movie before that confrontation happens, which works. Why. Because the argument these two will surely have is not nearly as everything that has led up to it. So the last image we are left with is Eliezer, who is about to get everything he has ever wanted, even while knowing it’s all a lie. Will that be enough to get him to give up what he wants? Cedar leaves it to us to decide

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