Sony Pictures Classics picked up domestic rights to Joseph Cedar’s Israeli film Footnote before its first Cannes press screening last night (Friday), a key indicator that the film would be a solid arthouse performer. But I wasn’t expecting Cedar, whose previous credits include Beaufort and Campfire, to deliver such a deliciously entertaining, laugh-out-loud serio-comedy about intellectuals at war. The Cannes critics were apparently reluctant to applaud the film when it finished but most seemed to offer warm approval when they shuffled outside to start opining.

It’s sometimes easy at Cannes to forget the sheer pleasure of a film which succeeds in entertaining its target audience. But even as we are watching the endless production and finance company cards at the film’s start, Cedar announces that we are in for something playful as the first bars of the bombastic score by Amit Poznansky begin to play. We discover the friction between our two protagonists - cranky father Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), both Talmudic scholars with different approaches - through comic flashbacks and top five lists (“five things you need to know about Eliezer Shknolnik”). But the screen calms down into riveting intellectual conflict when Eliezer is told that this year he will win The Israel Prize, a prestigious award handed out by the State Of Israel, after 20 years of being passed over for it.

In the film’s finest scene, Uriel is summoned to meet with the prize’s judges who inform him that his father has been incorrectly awarded the prize and that it was actually meant for him. It’s a superb sequence in which Uriel tears into the chair of the jury (Michael Lewesohn) and accuses him of personal animosity to his father.

The multiple styles that Cedar employs to get the story started are a little over the top but they infuse a kinetic energy into the story which is essentially a father-son relationship piece and could have been too serious or too contemplative if played straight.

Cedar’s comic winner screened the same day as Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam, another wry take on serious matters which looked at the election of a new pope and the Vatican’s response when the newly anointed pontiff has an existential crisis.

It’s one of those frustrating films which is part brilliant, part undercooked. The opening sequences of the cardinals voting in the Sistine Chapel are superbly rendered by Morretti and there is plenty of gentle humour derived from the situation when the Pope - aka Cardinal Melville (the wonderfully expressive Michel Piccoli) - refuses to step onto the balcony in St Peter’s Square. But when Piccoli manages to escape the Vatican to search for answers in the real world of Rome, the movie’s rich themes thin out and Melville himself remains a mystery.

Morretti is one of the greats, but Habemus Papam feels underdeveloped.

Previous Cannes Competition 2011 Blog Posts:

Midnight In Paris

We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sleeping Beauty