Dir: Josef Cedar. Israel. 2011. 105mins
Pungent, ironic and glib, Josef Cedar’s follow up to his award-winning Beaufort is a smart, well written and deftly executed confrontation between a father and son who may be more alike than they would choose to believe. Both are academics, both dedicated to the obscure and marginal field of Talmud research, each representing a different generation and approach but both terribly keen on recognition for their work.
Cedar delivers a rather unique combination of original satire and serious drama.
Though possibly too ascetic for multiplex crowds and rather difficult to follow for audiences that are not that familiar with academic bickering and philological refinements, Footnote (Hearat Shulayim) should do well for Sony Classics, which has acquired the film in Cannes, particularly with selective audiences in US, and turn into natural art house fare and ideal festival fodder.
Eliezer Shkolnik (popular comic Shlomo Bar Aba, remarkable in an atypical role) is a grim, dedicated purist who has been preparing all his life an introduction to a much annotated version of the Jerusalem Talmud. For years he has been the ignored candidate in his field for the country’s highest honorary award, the Israel Prize, causing him an enormous amount of resentment, which he openly expresses in spitefully putting down the winners and their achievements.
His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi in an unexpected but highly successful departure from his macho roles), followed in his father’s path, but is apparently far more communicative and easy-going in his contacts with the rest of the world. All the more reason for the father to consider his son is a lightweight in his profession, incapable of true and serious research.
In the opening scene, the edgy Eliezer attends a ceremony honoring Uriel and the tense relationship established at this point between the two of them will only get worse as they get mixed up in a complicated imbroglio around the impending annual distribution of the Israel Prize, with the father’s academic nemesis, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewesohn) involved up to his neck in the proceedings.
Some of the conflicts in the film will be more evident to Israelis, only too familiar with the traditional arguments, gossips and squabbling around the Israel Prizes, with unsatisfied candidates bypassed by the selection committees, exposing their complaints and aggravation in the media. Also, the prolonged exposition and the conflict that will complicate their already uneasy relations may appear at first to be rather fussy and even nagging, as the whole family background has to be introduced and the nature of the protagonists’ occupation has to be clarified.
But thanks to Cedar’s humorous, at times even sardonic, way of dealing with this material, tackling stuffy themes with a light touch and alertly moving forward with the imaginatively skillful assistance of editor Einat Glaser-Zarhin, the risk of losing his audience is smilingly avoided.
As the main crisis finally erupts, Bar Aba’s studied surly performance on the one hand and Ashkenazi’s increasing restlessness on the other hand, carry Cedar’s script efficiently forward to a climactic, almost hallucinatory preparation for the distribution of the supreme awards, before leading into an inconclusive ending that some will consider to be disappointing while other will praise, rightly so, for its restraint.
Helped by Yaron Scharf’s fluid cinematography and Alex Claude’s judicious sound design, and accompanied by a richly opulent - but almost invasive - soundtrack, Cedar, in what is most likely his top achievement to date, delivers a rather unique combination of original satire and serious drama, conveying, once the smiles wear off, a bitter aftertaste which will linger on for a long time.
Production companies: United King Films, Movie Plus
International sales: WestEnd Films, www.westendfilms.com)
Producers: David Mandil, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Cinematography: Yaron Scharf
Editor: Einat Glaser-Zarhin
Production designe:r Arad Sawat
Music: Amit Poznansky
Main cast: Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen, Alma Zak, Daniel Markovich, Micah Lewesohn