Dramatically charged and bitterly funny

Footnote is a nice surprise

You don’t need to be on a tenure track to figure out why writer-director Joseph Cedar picked up a best screenplay prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for his fourth feature. After all most viewers would not expect an Israeli movie about professional rivalries and squabbles over semantics between father-son Talmudic scholars to be so dramatically charged or so bitterly funny. Then again Footnote ’s core subject of intergenerational strife has wider resonance than any of the exegetical matters that preoccupy its characters.

The older combatant in this battle of wills is Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) a sour-tempered academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose reputation rests on him being thanked in a footnote in a former mentor’s work. Since his own toils in the decades since yielded no further accolades Eliezer has none of the prestige or popularity enjoyed by his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) a rising star in the same department.

Though Uriel longs for his father’s respect relations between the two are frosty at best with Uriel’s mother Yehudit (Aliza Rosen) carefully maintaining the détente that exists within the family. But resentments rise to the surface when a prestigious award that was meant for Uriel is directed to Eliezer due to a bureaucratic mix-up. Knowing that telling his father about the mistake would extinguish the last of the old man’s pride Uriel’s struggle to decide what to do is compounded by Eliezer’s vanity and insensitivity in the wake of his “prize.”

The film’s many visual flourishes and bold use of music are initially off-putting but ultimately fitting for a movie in which even the smallest most persnickety detail proves to have major importance. Indeed there’s an opera’s worth of high drama in Footnote which transforms the stuff of an academic pissing match into a sharply written tragicomedy with something powerful to say about the values behaviours and aspirations parents impose on their children (and sometimes vice versa). As a parable about human foibles and family tensions Footnote boasts great force and finesse.