Two men, one in a suit and the other in a sweater, sit side by side in folding chairs in a small auditorium. They are listening to an unseen speaker introducing a new inductee to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
As the speaker finishes, the man in the suit rises and moves off-camera to the podium. As he delivers his acceptance speech, the camera remains focused on his empty chair and the taciturn man sitting beside it. For long minutes the seated man registers a series of conflicted emotions, all of them joyless.
The man in the suit is Uriel Shkolnik, a celebrated scholar of the Talmud, and the sour-faced older man is his father, Eliezer Shkolnik, also a Talmudic scholar, who has long been denied the recognition he feels he is entitled to.
Thus begins “Footnote,” the engaging film that was Israel’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
A revealing story set in academia, “Footnote” is a harsh depiction of the rivalries, jealousies, ambitions and obsessive attention to minor inconsistencies that pervade academic research.
Professor Shkolnik the elder (played with grim commitment by Shlomo Bar Aba) is a “philologist,” someone who studies various versions of the same manuscript and conducts a meticulous comparison of every word to determine the exact intention of a puzzling sentence in a long-forgotten text. Critics of this esoteric field of study deride its exaggerated adherence to details and consider its scholars an exclusive and arrogant clique that has lost its relevance. Eliezer Shkolnik, who has devoted his life to this demanding work, considers himself a victim of this attitude.
His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), on the other hand, is a gregarious, collegial member of the same department at the university. While he respects his father’s work, he is a bit afraid of him as well, and is always striving to win his approval, as well as that of his contemporaries. He recognizes, however, that his father has nothing but disdain for the branch of Talmudic studies he has chosen to engage in.
In a strange twist of fate, however, the elder Shkolnik suddenly receives a telephone call informing him that he is to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his outstanding contributions to Jewish studies. Similar to a Nobel Prize, the Israel Prize has been awarded by the state of Israel since 1953 and bestows much public recognition and acclaim on its recipients. Accepting this news as a long-overdue tribute, Eliezer uses the occasion to conduct an interview in which he berates his colleagues and demeans their work.
Unfortunately, he has won the prize through an administrative error. The prize was meant for his son.
As Uriel anguishes over this dilemma, the conflicting personalities of father and son play out with damaging consequences to both of them.
Richard Cedar, who wrote and directed “Footnote,” was born in New York but immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 6. He studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the Film School of New York University. “Footnote” is his fourth feature film and the third to be Israel’s official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar.
Although “Footnote” has many emotionally charged moments, the tension is mitigated by the extraordinary cinematography of Yaron Scharf. Long takes with a stationary camera, shots of a person taken from the back, and unusual views and perspectives mark the film as more European in mood than American, even though Scharf is a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts.
“Footnote” opened at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles last week. There are multiple screenings throughout the weekend. Check it out.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.