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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

J. Hoberman
March 05, 2012
(Sony Pictures Classics)
(Sony Pictures Classics)

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.”

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.)

J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.