‘Footnote’ explores father-son Torah scholars’ professional rivalry

Shlomo Bar-Aba in ‘Footnote’ as Eliezer Shkolnik. Photo by Ren Mendelson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

A son following in his father’s footsteps is often a compliment to both the father and his profession. But when the son eclipses the father’s professional standing, things may get uncomfortable.

The Israeli film “Footnote” weaves a tale of a father and son, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, who are both scholars in Talmudic studies. While the flinty, nearly anti-social father Eliezer has toiled in professional obscurity for years, his dutiful, handsome, well-liked son Uriel, has achieved academic star status, seeming to garner honors and acclaim with ease. When the older Shkolnik receives a call that he has won the prestigious Israel Prize for his work, an ironic twist emerges that confronts the son with a complex situation and a difficult choice.

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Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) spent 30 years working on the proof of a new Talmudic discovery, only to be usurped by another scholar who stumbled across that proof by chance but published first. Eliezer saw his recognition for decades of work reduced to a citation—a footnote. The experience left the older man embittered.

So when Eliezer tells his family about winning the prestigious award, his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is delighted to see his father finally recognized professionally. But the son soon learns of a problem that turns the award into a thorny situation.

What to do about this delicate predicament forms the heart of “Footnote,” a serio-comic tale of misunderstanding, mis-communication and secrets. The film does a stunning job of walking the narrow path between exploiting the comic absurdities of the situation and exploring the complexities of ego, professional rivalry and family dynamics.

Intelligent, thought-provoking and funny, “Footnote” was one of the nominees for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and won best screenplay at Cannes.

The film’s playful, bouncing score suggests comedy and the situation is certainly farcical. Yet director Joseph Cedar dives deeper into this family drama, drawing out the best of both humor and drama. The film alternates between the son’s and father’s point of view, with a few dream sequences to reveal the father’s innermost feelings. Every time the story’s dramatic side looms too heavily, we get a little comic kick to remind us of the absurdity of it all. Every time the comic aspect seems poised to overwhelm the serious, we get a poignant reminder of the humanity at its heart. It creates a perfect balance.

While American films often hand everything to audiences, this one requires a little participation to fill in some unspoken subtext. What would be the resolution in an American film becomes the starting point of an examination of family dynamics and a prickly problem in this one.

Strong acting helps the film walk its fine line between the thoughtful-provoking and the absurd. Both Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar-Aba are excellent as son and father. Ashkenazi’s Uriel is only trying to do the right thing by his father, yet no matter how hard he tries things go wrong. Shlomo Bar-Aba hardly cracks a smile as Eliezer, whose testy nature does not improve with the sudden attention but whose ego seems ever expanding. The difficulty with his father reveals undercurrents in Uriel’s relationship with his own unambitious son, in his parents’ awkward relationship and even aspects of his own marriage. The film’s open-ended final scene invites both thought and discussion.

This excellent Israeli film is worth every bit of effort to watch, rewarding audiences with a thought-provoking experience that will have them talking well after the credits roll.