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Prize Fighters

Joseph Cedar’s Footnote pits a Talmudic scholar against his academic son in a tale equal parts midrash, riddle, and Israeli political tragedy

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(Sony Pictures Classics)
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Writing Footnote

Director Joseph Cedar on Orthodox Judaism, The Social Network, and the nightmare scenario behind his latest Academy Award-nominated film

Footnote, the absurdist tragedy by New York-born, Israeli-raised Joseph Cedar, is a movie of such cosmic inconsequence that hyperbole is inevitable. So here goes: If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of the Jewish condition, Footnote is the most Jewish movie since The Jazz Singer, or at least in the 50-odd years since Jerry Lewis staged The Jazz Singer on TV. What’s more, it’s an even funnier comedy of Jewish intellectuals than Bye Bye Braverman, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Wallace Markfield’s novel To an Early Grave.

At age 43, Cedar must be considered among Israel’s leading filmmakers. His three previous movies—Time of Favor (2000), Campfire (2004), and Beaufort (2007)—have all been characterized by a markedly skeptical, if resigned, Zionism. The first two are set in West Bank settlements rife with fanaticism and hypocrisy; the last, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and was an enormous success in Israel, is a compassionate, quietly despairing, bleakly humorous account of Israeli soldiers charged with defending (and then destroying) a 12th-century Crusader castle in southern Lebanon.

This is not a filmmaker to duck a metaphor; Footnote’s is found in its title. Cedar’s Talmudic tale of two competitive Talmud scholars, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), and the Israel Prize (an award, it hardly seems coincidental, that was bestowed upon the filmmaker’s own father, the biologist Howard Cedar) has a particular form of provincial universality. It could have been played out in medieval Toledo or 18th-century Vilna, imagined by Franz Kafka or Cynthia Ozick, transposed to 1930s Hollywood or boiled down into a 20-minute episode of Seinfeld.

Ironies proliferate at every level: The performances (with stand-up comedian Bar Aba and macho heartthrob Ashkenazi both cast against type) are as subtle as the musical cues are blatant. (Seinfeld really is a model.) The issues at stake are a groyser gornisht, at once profound and ridiculous. The characters’ self-importance is exceeded only by their marginality. It’s hardly coincidental that the movie’s key scene and most impassioned moral debate would be waged in a room the size of a broom closet.

Footnote is set entirely in present-day Jerusalem, but there’s a sense in which, living as he does in the world of ancient texts, Shkolnik senior doesn’t know (or care) where he is. The opening sequence, given the title “The Most Difficult Day in the Life of Professor Shkolnik,” is a deadpan farce in which, compelled to attend his son’s induction into the Israel Academy, Eliezer (last to stand and first to sit during the ceremony, seemingly cultivating a gastric ulcer) wanders out of the Israel Museum but then, driven back by a noisy cell-phone conversation, is stopped for a routine security check. “Are you a member of the Academy?” the young soldier asks. Eliezer makes no answer because, of course, he is not, and there’s the rub.

Adding insult to injury, the incident is witnessed by the senior Shkolnik’s great adversary Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn). Refusing to allow the hated Grossman to vouch for him, let alone explain his filial connection to the ceremony inside (no “my son, the doctor!” here), glowering Shkolnik insists that the now bored and indifferent soldier finish the procedure in strict accordance to the rules.

A scholar who had devoted his entire working life to tracking down tiny errors of transcription in handwritten Talmud scrolls, the elder Shkolnik is a great character. (Stubborn, unyielding and proudly marginal, he’s an “insult comic” inside his head.) His greatest accomplishment is the footnote wherein he is uniquely acknowledged by the legendary Talmud researcher who was his mentor; his greatest disaster came when Grossman stumbled across a mistake in a medieval Italian Talmud that validated Shkolnik’s 30 years of painstaking research and went on to upstage Shkolnik by publishing first.

It’s a story Uriel must have heard a thousand times over dinner. He is, however, a good son. Emulating his father, Uriel is also a Talmud scholar, also at the Hebrew University—but of a very different sort. Whereas the elder Shkolnik is a musty creature of the archives, shown lecturing to a virtually empty classroom, the son is a glib popularizer, author of many books, veteran of numerous symposia, a celebrity scholar who basks in the limelight, such as it is. The father is implacably contemptuous of his son; the son is naturally aggrieved by his father and yet also fearful. Eliezer resents the world; Uriel resents him. In fact, as revealed in his conversations with his eminently reasonable wife, Dikla (Alma Zak), he is obsessed.

Cedar is pleased to show this primal situation through the wrong end of a telescope, signaling his comic intent through over-emphatic music and arch narrative titles. Eliezer Shkolnik’s “Most Difficult Day” yields to his “Happiest” with the miraculous announcement that he has been nominated for the Israel Prize. For the first time, Eliezer smiles. Uriel is proud but also nonplussed. “The things he’s said about this prize,” he muses, recalling decades of sarcastic invective. Suddenly, the bitter old man is almost radiant. Uriel watches in wonderment as his father basks in the congratulation of his fellow library drones. Eliezer’s wife, Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), compares her husband to “an anorexic girl who suddenly begins to eat.” But, as they say in Yiddish, “some get bread and some get dead.” Uriel is summoned to the Ministry of Education for an emergency meeting in the aforementioned broom closet.

“I’m the one who spoils his world,” Uriel will at one point say of his father. Reader, I have no desire to spoil yours. If you haven’t seen Footnote and wish to be surprised by its key plot twist, you’d best stop reading now. For I have come to the moment at which, the second time I saw the movie (in my capacity as guest speaker at the Westchester Cinema Club), I heard from the row behind me, a spontaneous “Oy vey.”

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miha ahronovitz says:

According to the author, who saw the movie twice, the story is very complicated, unusual, probably philosophical, has political connotations, but I could not follow what this movie is all about.

The initiative to spend the money of the estate of the late Zalman C. Bernstein to create Tablet was an extraordinary good use. Tablet is one the best magazines in English language today, Jewish or not-Jewish. Period.

I assume funding a movie like Footnote might be an equally good use of charity money. But I must see the movie first, and to be honest, after reading this article, I wondered if I should see it, for other reasons than intellectual curiosity. Movies too intellectual are often unbearable.

As this movies will never be a blockbuster, do Netflix, Amazon, etc have it for rent?

Yay! J. Hoberman! Yay!

elliot cohen says:

It’s really great to have J. Hoberman doing reviews for Tablet. He’s a fine addition to this site.

Michael says:

Review seems excellent but i don’t think the reviewer saw cedar’s earlier movies at all. Campfire didn’t take place in a setflement: a major part of the plot was that the mom wanted them to move to a settlement but they wouldn’t accept a single woman with kids. In fact it was a scathing insider’s look at the hypocracy of many elitist setlements and religious jerusalem in general. Oh well.

Mildred Bilt says:

Terrific. Each viewer will interpret it his/her own way; but for me, without having seen the film it strikes a very deep note. Archaic minutae will not sustain us-and neither will cool hip. Civility, acceptance and tolerance of the other-realizing that everyone is flawed, susceptible to fits of baseness, and occasional extremely rare spurts of wisdom is the road that leads to a coherent society. A large dose of humor to season the roiling pot can’t hurt either.

arnon says:

Excellent review.

I will see the film the firstchance I get.

However, whwt is skeptical Zionism?

Why do American Jews have to belittle Jewishness? I never hear a Frenchman call someone a skeptical Frenchman

People are skeptical of all sorts of things, but not about their existence. Those who are have problems with rewlity.

Oh, yes I know that being skeptical or ironic mkes one feel superior.

The film is about the rivalry between a father and son who are Talmudic scholars

Abbi says:

Campfire is not set in a West Bank settlement. The mother in the story wants to be accepted into a settlement, but the story takes place in the Bayit V’gan neighborhood in Jersualem.

joe l says:

Great review– as usual. Thank you for the spoiler alert. Sure wish your reviews would deploy them more often. I wonder if anyone else felt that when the vindictive Grossman insists Uriel write the judge’s statement, he instinctively knew that Eliezer (given his subject of expertise) would discover the text was written by his own son. 

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Prize Fighters

Joseph Cedar’s Footnote pits a Talmudic scholar against his academic son in a tale equal parts midrash, riddle, and Israeli political tragedy