Director Joseph Cedar on Orthodox Judaism, The Social Network, and the nightmare scenario behind his latest Academy Award-nominated film
The Israeli film Footnote, which was nominated for an Academy Award last week, is the fourth feature film by writer-director Joseph Cedar. Footnote is a slice-of-Jerusalem-life, set at Hebrew University’s inbred Talmud department; it centers around a father-son rivalry for the coveted Israel Prize. Cedar’s first two films, Time of Favor (2001) and Campfire (2004), were box-office hits in Israel and were chosen by local film industry representatives to be Israel’s official selections for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. Beaufort (2007), his third film, was critically acclaimed for its depiction of an IDF unit’s experience withdrawing from Lebanon and was also nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar.
Cedar’s latest film sparkles with intelligence and droll characterizations but is hardly the kind of movie you’d expect to break out beyond its homegrown base. Yet that is exactly what has happened, making a good argument for the more local the product, the more universal its appeal: Even before its Oscar nod, the film picked up the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, where it was acquired by Sony Classics. It will be interesting to see whether Footnote, which opens in early March in New York and Los Angeles, lives up to its early billing—whether viewers will respond with equal enthusiasm to its quirky human drama, in which Talmud scholarship and Hebrew philology feature as much as the personal lives of the characters. One of the singular pleasures of this film is the way it delves into the aches and pains of an esoteric intelligentsia, a group who don’t usually get much play in the popular media, without becoming self-conscious in the process. Cedar moves with ease from scenes featuring academic tempests in a teapot to those that give us a glimpse of the domestic backgrounds of his two main characters. Shlomo Bar Aba, who is a well-known comic in Israel, is superb as Eliezer Shkolnik, the dour academic outsider who finally—almost—gets his moment of glory, and the other roles, including Lior Ashkenazi as Eliezer’s son, a deft academic player, and Alisa Rosen, as Eliezer’s shut-out wife, are equally well-cast. The closing 15 minutes of the film, which are choreographed as much as directed, are priceless.
Last weekend, after Shabbat was over in Israel and in anticipation of the movie’s release, I spoke on the phone with the 43-year-old director at his home in Tel Aviv. Cedar, who immigrated to Israel from New York with his family at the age of 6 and later studied philosophy and theater history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and NYU Film School, is married and the father of three children, ages 10, 6, and 2.
Did the response to the film surprise you, especially given its very specific Jerusalem setting?
When it was accepted to Cannes, I was in shock. It was very hard to picture this film in a competition in Cannes. I think a lot of the people there had a similar response: that it was an odd choice. Cannes gives it the kind of exposure that’s so hard to get with a film. And then Sony buying it on the first day. It’s a narrow crack a film goes through, and Cannes is a gateway. More than a film that can only take place in Israel, it’s a Jerusalem film. Even if it had taken place someplace else geographically, it’s still a Jerusalem film. Two scholars fighting over the tiniest nuance of language: That’s what Jerusalem is—or what I want it to be.
Did you have any model for the kind of film you were trying to make?
It’s a film that can’t be compared to anything. While we were preparing the shoot, we decided that the way the father character sees the world—in extreme detail, the way a philologist looks at a text—was the way we were going to look at the story. Extremely subjectively and not considering the larger context. My previous films had left me with a lot of ideas that I didn’t know how to fit into the story; that’s the way narrative films are. Because of the style of this film, its flexibility, anything that was important to the story found its way onto the screen.
What led you to cast Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik?
There’s something about him that’s reminiscent of Peter Sellers—someone people don’t know what to expect from, although Israelis know him and expect to laugh when they see him. I had him in mind when I was writing the film, but I didn’t know him and didn’t know if he could deliver. When I met him I thought he was wrong, but during the rehearsal period and during the discussion of the character it turned out that there were so many things he identified with. He’s very connected to this kind of person.
How autobiographical is the film?
It’s more my nightmare than my life. The jealousy between a father and son—the inability to be proud of your child—is something I’m afraid of more than I actually feel.
Middle East expert Robert Kagan argues in a new book that American foreign policy has spawned a golden age of liberal democracy. He’s wrong.