29 March 2012

SUCH A JEALOUS GUY

The easiest, and indeed most accurate, way to describe Footnote would make it sound like an absolute chore: an Israeli family dramedy about a father and son pair of feuding Talmudic scholars, recently nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. If you are anything like me, the only word in that description that was appealing on any level was "Israeli", but the nasty little secret is that Footnote is actually a pretty worthwhile movie, with a first half frivolous enough that it's not as ghastly sentimental as it seems like it could be, and with a second half brittle enough that it's not as frivolous as it was when it started out. And the Talmud angle ends up being more of a prop with thematic resonance than an actual mainspring of the plot, which is a relief to those of us whose knowledge of, and interest in the Talmud hovers somewhere down there around "nonexistent".

The film opens with middle-aged Prof. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) being inducted into the Israel Acadamy of Sciences and Humanities, to the great acclaim of his family and colleagues except for one man: his father, Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), like his son a researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an unbending notion of traditionalism and what Talumdic research ought to be that has kept him on the sidelines for most of his career. As we learn, the particular moment that pushed Eliezer into obscurity was when his decades-long analysis of texts, with an eye to reconstructing a now-lost document of the Talmud in an earlier state, was scooped by his bitterest professional and personal rival, Prof. Grossman (Michah Lewensohn), who found the actual physical text that Eliezer was trying to reconstruct almost completely by chance.

Things start to look up for the old man when he is called and informed that he has been voted the recipient of the Israel Prize, a major recognition that his life's work has been considered valuable by his peers; and this balances out the jealousy between father and son, until that selfsame Grossman brings Uriel in to explain a terrible mistake has been made: the committee - headed by Grossman - had voted in favor Uriel receiving the prize, and only a fairly inevitable series of basic human mistakes led to his father getting the call. The son is immediately terrified that this news will break the last of his father's vitality, and so he begins to fight for the committee to officially change their minds, right up to the point that a now-cocky Eliezer gives an interview where he claims, in essence, that people like his son and the rest of the Talmud department at Hebrew University are superficial, intellectually un-rigorous, and their reduction of the Talmud to soap opera questions of personalities is contemptible anti-research.* This naturally causes a bit of strain in the already-borderline father/son relationship.

The first marvelous thing about Footnote is its fleet tonal jumps: in the beginning, it is a sharp character-driven comedy that drifts so subtly into farce that you never notice it until the immensely funny scene between Uriel and the prize committee, a delectable exercise in chamber comedy and mocking stuck-up bureaucrats and keeping all sorts of absurdities in the air for the longest time possible. And then, about three-quarters through, the film is all of a sudden a rather dark study in the widening gulf between a father and son, precipitated by exactly the thing that was supposed to bring them together: for without ever stating it overtly, it's clear that Uriel went into Talmudic studies first to win his distant father's love and approval, and still as a grown man with his own family, wants to use the Talmud as the bridge between Eliezer and himself, rather than the wedge it invariably becomes. That's hard stuff, and the fact that it's mostly ushered in under a veil of comedy makes it all the harder.

Writer-director Joseph Cedar (of another Oscar-nominated film, Beaufort) is in magnificent form here, not merely navigating the sudden lurch from fluffy comedy to sober character drama so elegantly as to make the transition completely invisible, but using the lurch as the crux of his entire movie; for it is the frothy opening comedy that allows us to meet these characters and this situation without being immediately turned off by how sour it all is, while the increasing bitterness and drama is absolutely necessary to keep the whole thing from being only frothy, though truth be told, Footnote is a good enough comedy that it perhaps didn't need the jolt of aggressive realness. And that is a credit to Cedar, too, that he keeps the vaguely satiric humor as fresh and piercing for as long, and on the backs of two such impeccable characters.

For this is, ultimately, a character piece, in both its comic and serious modes, anchored by two absolutely wonderful performances from Bar-Aba and Ashkenazi. Part of the joke, and part of the social commentary, is that Uriel and Eliezer are both kind of awful people -Uriel is fatuous, pandering, and lazy, Eliezer is reactionary, judgmental, angry, and hypocritical - but the film does so much to explain why they are who they are, without necessarily forcing us to pick sides (Cedar playfully structures expository flashbacks as something like multimedia slide-shows, which not only gives the movie a blast of energy right at the beginning, but also suggests a level of objective removal from the two characters that makes it easier to seem them from all angles), that it's hard not to see what's worth liking about them in despite of their rather obvious flaws. Both actors (though especially Bar-Aba, a comedian lured back by this project after two decades away from film) play up the comic potential of the broad strokes of their characters without sacrificing the personality that makes them worth liking; in the end, one feels amused and exasperated by both men, rather like they're actually family.

Now, it is perhaps true that the title is largely prophetic, and Footnote is not destined to end up as any kind of classic in the years to come; certainly, its appeal (which is omnipresent) isn't terribly unlike that of dozens of movies in all sorts of languages every year. Funny, nasty-minded jokes; a sharp depiction of character relationships that we've all seen in a number of projects. It's a good version of something absolutely average. Somehow, that suits it; it is a movie ultimately about self-aggrandising men who don't realise that their struggles aren't remotely as world-changing as they would like to believe, and the fact that Footnote itself is no kind of life-altering experience just adds to our sense that the Shkolnik boys are puffed up about nothing. Thus we can rest certain that we're rather brighter than they are, and by extension the movie that contains them; that in turn makes it easy to feel affection for the picture, if not necessarily a whole lot more.

7/10

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