Sony // 2011 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 1st, 2012
Will he sabotage his father's glory?
You can't throw a proverbial rock in a video store without hitting a film about a cop, a soldier, or a lawyer. You can even find a whole subsection dedicated to teachers. What you'll find less of are films that focus on the strange world of scholarship, where it's possible to dedicate an entire lifetime's worth of intellectual effort to the minutest detail of some area of study. It takes a special character to strive to be the biggest fish in a pond so tiny that most people aren't even aware it's a body of water. It also takes a special film to turn this kind of scholarship into a compelling movie. There's nothing particularly cinematic about a guy who sits at a desk thinking and writing all day, and yet amazingly, Footnote not only captures the stakes of academic work but combines it with a touching family drama.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba, Witness in the War Zone) is an elderly scholar of Talmudic studies. He spent the majority of his career piecing together fragments of a text thought lost, but just before he completed his work, another scholar found an intact copy of the text as if by accident. The film opens on the night that Eliezer is to receive the highest honor of his profession and the award is to be presented by his son (Lior Askenazi, Rabies), another Talmudic scholar. The only problem is that Eliezer was accidently awarded the prize, and he knows. This difficult moment is the pivot around which Footnote turns its story of pride, family, and the search for the truth.
I won't pretend to be an expert in Talmudic scholarship, but my basic understanding is this: a certain portion of Jewish belief comes straight from the mouth of God, given to Moses. Because that law has had to do duty for six millennia now, a large body of commentary has become central to the Jewish tradition, the Talmud. It consists of dialogues between rabbis on the significance and proper application of those laws to Jewish life. Around that has sprung up another set of commentaries about The Talmud, a.k.a. Talmudic studies or Talmudic scholarship.
If all this seems a bit *ahem* academic, take an example that might be more familiar to most Americans: it's a central tenant of most Christian faiths that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. It says so in The Bible. However, there's a vast amount of commentary on whether the words in the original text mean "virgin" in our current parlance or just "unmarried woman." It seems like a tiny difference, but it has enormous implications for the faith. It is exactly these kind of minute possibilities that Eliezer has dedicated his life to.
The central problem of Footnote is that Eliezer is a good scholar, one who deserves recognition not only for his dedication, but his rigor. Due to an accident of history (the discovery of a complete version of the text he was working to compile), he has been largely denied that recognition. His son, however, has taken the darker path. Instead of focus, rigor, and painstaking research, Uriel has chosen the route of placating and doing sloppy research in the hopes of rising in the profession. The central conflict, which combines professional drama with the stakes of an intimate family portrait, makes Footnote compelling beyond those with an interest in Jewish scholarship.
The story alone doesn't sell Footnote -- it also takes the central performances of Bar-Aba and Ashkenazi. Bar-Aba is the rock that will not be moved, every movement and gesture reinforces his commitment to slow, careful research (and living). In contrast, Ashkenazi is the man on the rise. Although he doesn't twirl a moustache, he plays Uriel as if he were getting away with something. The rest of the cast is equally interesting, but get less screen time than the father-son pair.
There's also the danger with a film like Footnote that looking at the thing could be boring. There's a reason that few films take scholarship as a subject: it's difficult to show. Director Joseph Cedar keeps viewer attention with several devices. The first is the overall look of the film, which is lit to have the same intensity as Eliezer's scholarly focus. There were times when I felt I couldn't look away from the screen even if I wanted. Then, there are moments when the director will offer flashbacks and facts with title cards and the like. These lend the film a certain distance which keeps the solemn subject matter from being oppressive.
The film gets an appropriately solid DVD release as well. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is clear and damage-free. Colors are appropriately saturated for the film's distinct palette, and black levels are consistent and deep. No artefacts or digital problems crop up to mar the image. The film's original language track is presented in Hebrew with a 5.1 surround mix. The surrounds don't get a lot of use, but that's okay because the dialogue comes through clearly from the center channel. English subtitles are included for those of us who don't speak Hebrew.
The film gets two main extras. The first is a 25-minute making-of/behind-the-scenes featurette that mixes footage shot during the production with Q&A session with the cast and crew. The second is a 10-minute series of excerpts that Cedar did after a screening in Toronto. Both do a fine job of giving an idea of what went into making the film.
Footnote is a somewhat strange film. It's a drama, a dark comedy, and a film about a pretty obscure argument in an obscure field, and yet it's also the story of a father and son. This mixture might not appeal to every taste, especially because the film might seem to drag a bit at 106 minutes. Others might not always appreciate Cedar's choices with regard to the titles, finding them gimmicky instead of involving.
Footnote is a fascinating drama that isn't afraid to offer a touch of laughter when appropriate. It takes a difficult subject -- Talmudic studies -- and offers a family drama that enhances and helps make sense of the stakes of such a pursuit. The performances are excellent, and Cedar's style serves the narrative. It's worth a rental to fans of family drama and scholarship.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hebrew)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG