Not a father-son picnic
The title of writer-director Joseph Cedar’s movie demonstrates the perils of translation. In English it’s Footnote—appropriately enough, all things considered. But the original Hebrew title, Hearat Shulayim, suggests much more; it translates (according to Google) as “marginal illumination.” When it comes to the father and son at the center of Cedar’s movie, marginal illumination is exactly what he gives us, and given the differing prickles of these two personalities, it’s probably all we can really expect.
Father is Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a venerable professor of Talmudic Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor in the same field at the same university, but the arcs of their respective careers couldn’t be more different. Eliezer has spent decades in cloistered research into minute variations in translations of the Talmud over the centuries, carefully building a revolutionary thesis: There was originally a different version of the Talmud, now lost. After 30 years of painstaking analysis, he was on the brink of publishing his findings when a rival scholar, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), stumbled across a manuscript of that original Talmud and beat him to the punch. Grossman went on to fame and honors while Eliezer remained in obscurity, pursuing his pointless research wearing a noise-canceling headset that shuts out the world. Never published, never lionized, his only recognition came years ago from a minor footnote citation in his mentor’s magnum opus—and even then, he wasn’t given his full name, cited only as “E. Shkolnik.”
Son Uriel, on the other hand, is a rock star by comparison with his plodding father—a best-selling popularizer, nationally famous, in such demand on the lecture circuit that he dashes around Jerusalem giving as many as six speeches in one night. While father fumes in anonymity, son basks in the spotlight, thriving on the attention with calculated, semi-false modesty. (One colleague warns another to fall in line with the constant flow of low-level flattery or risk being frozen out of Uriel’s orbit.)
Things come to a boil—at least, as much as anything in the dusty, bookish halls of academia can be said to be boiling—when Eliezer’s name is announced as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize. The announcement comes with a plot twist in Cedar’s script, one that forces Uriel into an excruciating position to spare his father’s feelings and save what tenuous relationship they have. Meanwhile, unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes, Eliezer takes the award as his ultimate vindication, and in a newspaper interview, he vents his years of resentment against Uriel’s popular success, going out of his way to humiliate his son at the exact moment that his son is going out of his way to avoid humiliating him.
On one level, Footnote is a comedy, but a bitter and mordant comedy that evokes winces instead of laughs. The simmering conflict between father and son, smothered in a heavy blanket of filial duty, flares up in oblique directions: Uriel lashes out at a student and, more callously, at his own slacker son: “You know what it means to give up on your son? It means going from wanting to help you before it’s too late to hoping you’ll suffer so I can gloat.” He even snaps unfairly at his wife (Alma Zack). The closest he comes to confronting Eliezer is a whispered taunt to his own mother (Aliza Rosen) during—of all things, and yet more mordant humor from Cedar—a performance in Hebrew of Fiddler on the Roof.
In the end, Uriel gets a sort of revenge on his father’s self-righteous smugness, although, ironically, he doesn’t know it. Also ironically, the revenge comes through Eliezer’s penchant for dogged, internalized research (it’s best not to disclose exactly how).
Cedar’s movie ends in an indecisive muddle, as if he couldn’t decide whose mind to focus on at the last. But it’s the movie’s only real misstep. No, wait, there’s one other: Amit Poznansky’s intrusive, irrelevant musical score, as obnoxious and annoying as a too-loud orchestra rehearsing a second-rate symphony in the theater next door. Ignore it if you can, but not what comes with it.