(February 21, 2012 / JNS)
NEW YORK—In his latest film, Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar has created a drama of personal controversy. He explores spirit, resilience and responsibility. “Footnote” tells the story of a father, embittered by his life and angered by the success of his son. That son, though publicly applauded, is in turn challenged by the not-fully-formed third generation—his son.
The story of “Footnote” is universal, told here within the confines of a single family. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi), father and son, are both professors in the Talmudic studies department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a place Cedar says is replete with “mythological rivalries between scholars, stubbornness on an epic scale, (and) eccentric professors who live with an academic mission that is bigger than life itself.”
After 20 years of application and repeated rejection, Eliezer Shkolnik is notified of his nomination for the prestigious Israel Prize. Until this moment, his academic narrative had been defined by a footnote. The notification, incorrectly made, sets forward a series of emotionally charged events, sacrifice, and temptation.
In a room too small for their chairs to fit around a table, a group of aging men and women come together to change the life of one who would be their peer. A mistake made has changed a life, effectively rebirthing a soul near death. Can they who have “given life” simply recall it? What is the value of absolute truth weighed against humanity? Should one who can change life with the stroke of a pen actually do so?
Can the son praise the father, and create the illusion he has chosen? Life, Uriel realizes, is a series of parries—some carried out in costume, some hidden behind the mask’s wire mesh. In agreeing to compromise with the devil of deceit—and academic vanity—it is the son who creates his father. Obligated to compose the committee’s statement, he writes the lines and the meaning between them, the truth made clear enough for a learned reader to understand.
Even as the son gives his future to save his past, he faces a father so deeply angry he would destroys the very son who would not destroy him. Further, the possibility of such destruction is generational: “What does it mean,” asks Uriel of his own son, “when a father gives up on his son?” Is this father willing to destroy his next generation?
Seeking his father, Uriel follows staircase after staircase, each descending, until his reaches his father. In the depths, surrounded by his colleagues, the old scholar celebrates. His son who stood for his father, rather than for the convenience of correctness, who in finality will bear the weight of this decision, is uninvited. As he searched for his father in the bowels of the library, descending level by level, Uriel is accompanied by his thoughts and by music. Throughout the film, the music is an almost independent narrator, albeit one of private conversation rarely shared, yet telling and directive.
Interviewed prior to the awards ceremony, Eliezer panics and (literally) runs from the studio. Still in the camera-friendly red shirt, he returns to his texts. Bit by bit, linguistic clue by linguistic clue, the realization of what his son had done is clarified. He understands.
The old scholar lies silently, alone in the dark. In pain, Uriel had revealed the secret to his mother. In the dark, alone in her bed, she wakes. Carrying the burden of knowledge, she comes to her husband after what can be assumed to be a long time apart. The simplicity of his action, as he places a pillow for her head, speaks volumes. The woman—his wife, his life mate, the mother of his son—understands. They both do. Their recognition remains silent.
Silhouetted against golden Jerusalem, the couple ascends. To reach the prize ceremony, they descend through a strangely lit tunnel surrounded by the sounds of a beating heart. Eliezer knows the truth is known to the two closest to him, and now, to himself as well. There is no longer joy or celebration in receiving the prize. That has been removed—from who gave, and who received.
Footnote is Cedar’s fourth feature, following “Beaufort” (2007), “Campfire” (2004), and “Time of Favor” (2001). It premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on May 14, winning the Best Screenplay Award. It was released in Israel on June 2 and will be distributed in North America by Sony Pictures Classics.
Shlomo Bar Aba, returning to film after a twenty year hiatus, is Eliezer Shkolnik; Lior Ashkenazi, encompasses the role of Uriel Shkolnik, his son. Both prepared extensively, integrating themselves into the University community, studying Talmud; one even grew a beard.