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Flicks - Footnote
Footnote 12/05/03 3:21
Flicks - Footnote
The love-hate relationship between two scholars, father and son, is tested when the father is accidentally awarded a prestigious prize intended for the more famous son, in this witty comedy from Israel. Joseph Cedar is an Israeli director whose films, up until now, have been serious dramas with political overtones, so it was with some surprise I discovered that his new film, Footnote, is a comedy, albeit a rather dark comedy of ideas fueled by the age-old conflict between father and son. The satire manages to be both specific to a Jewish and Israeli milieu and universal in its wider meanings, and I was delighted and moved by it.
The picture opens with a ceremony welcoming a Talmudic scholar named Uriel Shkolnik, and played by Lior Ashkenazi, into the elite Israeli Academy of Science. He goes to the podium and makes a glib speech, but we don't see him speaking. Instead the camera focuses on his aging father Eliezer, also a Talmudic scholar, played by Shlomo Bar-Aba, throughout the speech, during which he is obviously not enjoying the moment as one would expect. Later after taking a little walk outside the building, the father is stopped by a security guard and asked if he is an invited guest, much to the shock and indignation of the old man, and this scene neatly prefigures the later events in the film.
The father, Eliezer, is a bitter man who spent his life trying to prove through textual analysis that some extant versions of the ancient rabbinic writings known as the Talmud were from a previously undiscovered source. But when his theory was proven true, another man got to take credit for the breakthrough, and Eliezer was left with only a footnote in a famous textbook as his sole claim to fame. The son, Lior, on the other hand, has become an immensely popular and prolific author, causing his grumpy and misanthropic father to feel jealous of him. Then, one day, the old man gets a phone call informing him that he has been awarded the Israel Prize—the highest award in academia. His life's work now seems vindicated, except that, as his son discovers, it's a mistake. The award was supposed to go to him, but a department assistant had mistakenly called the father instead.
The situation in itself is funny, but it wouldn't have been enough to sustain a film without Cedar's finely tuned understanding of the love-hate dynamic between father and son, combined with a very sharp sense of the ruthlessness and competition in academic life. The son, of course, wants to protect his father from finding out the secret, which he's afraid might kill him, while the father continues to push his son away in a vain attempt to elevate himself, even though he's obviously unable to handle the pressure of public success. There's a lot of pain, one might even say tragedy, underneath the laughter, and that's what gives this film such bite. The musical score by Amit Poznansky conveys a slyly humorous mix of melancholy and mock-heroic bombast, while Cedar uses the motif of old microfilm to reveal the story background in an amusing and entertaining way. In the end, everything hinges on words and their multiple meanings.
I have to confess that I love Footnote's brainy, flamboyant style. It's not just out to make you laugh; in fact it becomes quite serious in its themes, but even in that there's a kind of marvelous sense of just shaking your head at how messed up people can be.