A funny film about battling Hebrew scholars? Judge Bill Gibron says "Yes!"
Our review of Footnote, published August 1st, 2012, is also available.
A lost gem rediscovered post-Awards Season hoopla.
Every year, when the Academy announces the contenders for Best Foreign Language Film, there's a slight sound coming from the cinematic community. Sure, the considered critic has typically seen at least half to three quarters of the titles mentioned, but there is always a spoiler or two in the mix. This usually leads to a result both unexpected (2008's Departures beating out the far worthier Waltz with Bashir) and unconscionable (The Lives of Others over Pan's Labyrinth, really?). In the last couple of years, it has become even more unruly, especially with access to screenings limited or left until a post-Oscar time period. In 2011, the favored Iranian drama A Separation walked away with gold. Buried among the five nominations, however, was one of those weird unknown quantities (actually more than one). In the case of Footnote, it was an Israel "comedy" about battling father and son religious scholars, with a screenplay accolade from Cannes symbolizing its need for inclusion. Once you've seen the film, you'll understand what all the fuss is about. This is a entertainment question mark answered with artistry and effectiveness.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi, Walk on Water) are professors and scholars in the prestigious Talmudic Research department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The former is a philologist (someone who concentrates on linguistics within a historical context) and old-school purist. The latter has just been elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which drives his dedicated dad to distraction. Eliezer does not respect Uriel…and the feeling is frequently mutual. Each year, the State hands out its highest honor, the Nobel-like Israel Prize, for the greatest accomplishments in given fields, and each year Elienzer has been snubbed. This time around, however, the Minister of Education calls with great news—Mr. Shkolnik has won the award. Of course, the old man thinks it's him. When an emergency message is sent to Uriel, however, the truth is revealed. Agreeing to keep the facts from his father, the ceremony goes on as planned. Uriel even pens the committee's recommendation. Said statement ends up causing even more confusion.
If the aforementioned synopsis sounds a bit vague, that's because Footnote finds many of its multiple delights within the twisting and turning pages of its finely honed and narratively deft screenplay. Writer/director Joseph Cedar deserves every accolade he received for penning such a sharp and insightful script. He takes a standard set-up (miscommunication and identification) and turns it into a character study circa The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. The entire Talmund/Hebrew scholarship angle is just a smokescreen, a contrivance used to pit elder against younger in a battle of wits, want, and ego. Eliezer demands recognition, his devotion to tradition and its tenets acting as support for his otherwise antiquated ideas. Uriel is really no better, using his position and its power to forward his own personal passions and career. He may be as smart as his dad, but he is clearly more savvy. Once you add in ancillary characters with their own agendas (and in some cases, axes to grind), Footnote starts falling into place. Before long, both the characters and their cleverly complex circumstances have us smiling from ear to ear.
In his actors, Cedar finds symbols as much as sense. Shlomo Bar-Aba is one of Israel's artistic luminaries, an icon who actually came out of semi-retirement to play Eliezer…and it's not hard to see why. The filmmaker specifically wrote the role for this national treasure, and Bar-Aba shines. There's a unique approach to the character, a combination of psychological and pragmatic intricacy that always keeps us guessing. More than just a pissed off old man, Bar-Aba seems to be suggesting a life in service of scholarship leaves one bitter, twisted…and unfulfilled. As for Lior Ashkenazi, the performance path is a bit easier. Lost under a beard and the traditional tweed coat, he's the new age thinker stuck in the rut of his chosen profession. Yet his attempts to transcend seem to be working, the result being the besting of his old man for the ultimate prize. How Cedar chooses to resolve this issue is just one of the movie's many triumphs. Instead of the easy answers, Footnote goes for something more telling: the truth. The result is something as meaningful as it is magical.
Sony Picture Classics delivers a stunning Blu-ray presentation of Footnote, complete with an excellent transfer and terrific sound dynamics. Image wise, the 2.35:1/1080p offering is clean, crisp, and just what you'd expect from a modern day movie. Technology allows for such a near pristine product and Cedar's shot selection and carefully arranged compositions come across expertly. Sonically, we are treated to an immersive and atmospheric DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The 5.1 uses all the channels, especially when lost in the halls of academia. As for added content, we are given a nice overview of the film from Cedar himself, as well as some behind the scenes footage. While a commentary would have been nice (in particular, more on the influence of his father's life and work on the film would have added a great deal), what we get is still fairly informative.
Yes, it seems like every year a favorite foreign film loses out to some unintentionally mysterious movie. Dogtooth will be bested by In a Better World, The White Ribbon will watch as The Secret in Their Eyes walks away with their predicted prize. In the case of Footnote, said fact is even more disheartening. A Separation was/is a sensational film. So is this.
Not guilty, just great!
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