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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 is a movie about Talmudic scholars that hands the spectator a Talmudic riddle. Does the parent sacrifice for the child or the child for the parent? Is family more important than truth?

Upon entering the little room, Uriel learns that Eliezer Shkolnick has fallen victim to precisely the sort of transcription error that his life was devoted to correcting. The letter of announcement went to the wrong Shkolnik. The prize was not intended for Eliezer. According to the unanimous decision of a committee headed by none other than the dread Yehuda Grossman, the prize was intended for Uriel. The committee is there, along with a lawyer, and a representative from the ministry. Shock gives way to disputation. Uriel refuses to strip his father of the award. Grossman threatens to resign: “You have no right to pass this on to your father!”

Uriel’s beard is turning gray; Grossman has developed wrinkles on his wrinkles. Words become ballistic, recalling the earlier scenes of Uriel working out his aggression playing squash with a colleague. Morality turns personal (“I think you hate my father!!” “What I can reveal about your father, no son should know!!!”) and ultimately physical. It’s a great sequence—as claustrophobic as the stateroom riff in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. (How did Cedar squeeze himself, his camera, and crew into that space?) Eventually, however, Uriel and Grossman make a deal. Eliezer will get the prize but Uriel shall forever exclude himself from future consideration—what’s more, he must write the judge’s statement.

Uriel is named for an angel, but no good deed goes unpunished. For now we witness “The Revenge of Professor Shkolnik.” Even as the son struggles with the correct wording for the statement (coming to terms with reality of his father’s single project and few publications) a pretty young journalist (Yuval Scharf) arrives to interview the award-winning professor. To her surprise, recognition has not made him magnanimous. On the contrary. He feels duty-bound to badmouth the work of previous Israel Prize winners as “trivial and not scientific” and hopes that his award will mark a return to the old standards of excellence. Then, his gall overflowing, he goes even further in attacking fashionable, phony Talmudic pseudo-scholarship of the day.

The alert journalist realizes that Professor Shkolnik is criticizing his own son. Skillfully she draws him out, eliciting the statement that will be prominently featured in her article: “Uriel excels at what he does but I wouldn’t call it Talmudic research.” Folding laundry in the next room, his wife overhears and is aghast. How many times has she heard the old man rant? But now! And, as for Uriel … Suffice to say that sins of the father are visited on the son and the grandson. After reading the article, furious Uriel lays a vicious trip on his own teenage boy.

It’s theater and in his single best joke, Cedar has the Shkolniks attending a performance of that 20th-century Jewish classic, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye drags his wagon on stage, complaining that he is not just the driver but the horse—then comes out again to kvetch about his daughter’s dowry. Uriel and Eliezer are seated at opposite ends of the family group. Yehudit whispers to Uriel to give his father a chance to apologize. Uriel knows that will never happen and so he takes his own revenge and burdens his mother with the truth about the award: “No one knows except you.”

Eliezer may be happily humming “Tradition” on the way home in Uriel’s overcrowded car, but Cedar is not yet through. Thanks to the scholar’s memory for word patterns and formidable research skills, Eliezer will figure out that Uriel wrote the award statement and deduce that he had been the award’s intended recipient. Everything now in place, Footnote’s almost wordless last 15 minutes are exquisitely choreographed as, for the third time, the Shkolniks attend a public ceremony en famille. This event, however, is a mirror image of the first. Now everyone appears to be miserable, except perhaps Eliezer. The ceremony begins, but, just before the playing of “Hatikva,” the movie ends. Behind me, an anguished cry: “That’s it? That can’t be it!”

Cedar has left it to us to discuss amongst ourselves. At least, that’s how it was at the Westchester Cinema Club. It was pointed out that Shkolnik fils ceded the moral high ground when he whispered the truth mid-Fiddler to his mother, leaving her with an impossible choice between husband and son; it was further observed that Shkolnik père lost his authority when, through the power of his intellect, he discovered the truth and said nothing. Some noted that the women Dikla and Yehudit are clearly the movie’s most intelligent and empathetic characters and pointed out that women were traditionally banned from studying the Talmud.

One man angrily declared that Eliezer was an unbelievable character. A father would never disdain such nakhes and proof of filial loyalty. He would take pride in it and not so “sacrifice” his son. (“Ah ha,” I heard someone joke.) Others, more conversant with scripture, saw a similarity to the Talmudic tale of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, wherein a servant’s clerical error results in an unintended banquet invitation—rather than friend Kamsa, enemy Bar Kamsa shows up for the feast and, despite his three offers to pay an increasingly large portion of the expenses, is physically ejected by the irate host—thus setting off a chain of events resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Might Cedar have been issuing a similar warning about the destructive battles between religious right and secular left that even now divide Israel? some wondered. Perhaps his movie is a commentary on this midrash, suggesting that, as Eliezer believes, the truth of history is found in its footnotes. Or perhaps, Footnote has another moral lesson: The mistake that, however honest, remains unacknowledged can bring the Temple itself crashing down on our heads.

(Footnote received funding from the Avi Chai Foundation—which, like Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher, was funded by the estate of Zalman C. Bernstein.)

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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

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