Text & Subtext


The theme of father-son conflict has figured richly in movies, often bearing a conspicuously manly aspect. Consider the generational face-offs in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rebel Without a Cause, The Godfather, Road to Perdition—replete with guns, booze, fast cars, fights over money, fights over women. The Israeli film Footnote abjures such lurid and obvious topics to focus instead on the fraught acrimonies of...Talmudic scholarship? It might seem unlikely, this tale of dueling father-and-son textual critics. Then again, filial battles do trace back to the biblical dramas of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And any professor will tell you that academic infighting can get pretty ruthless. What happens when academic rivals are also father and son?

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Askenazi) both work as professors at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While the father has a reputation as an uncompromising scholar, his career has stalled, even as the son has become a well-known public figure, in demand on talk shows and the lecture circuit. The film’s caustic comedy arises from its close study of polar personalities: the father, scowling, meticulous, and adamant—a loner who sits in his study, blocking out family noise with headphones, spending his life parsing tiny phrases of text; and the son, smiling and gregarious, a compulsive charmer and—in his father’s view—a facile popularizer. While Eliezer’s crowning achievement is having once been footnoted in a famed mentor’s Talmudic commentary, Uriel wins accolades and is trailed by a gaggle of adoring grad students. He’s a gadabout public intellectual who manages to make Talmudic scholarship sexy, and you can see the contempt—and envy—in Eliezer’s eyes.

Under such withering scrutiny, the son can do nothing right. The film’s opening scene shows Uriel being inducted into the Israeli Academy of Sciences. In his acceptance speech he thanks his father at length, with the kind of fulsome praise that verges subtly on condescension, as Eliezer sits in the audience, stonefaced. Eventually Eliezer escapes outside, only to be refused reentry by an overzealous security guard. The moment serves as a metaphor for the disappointments of his career, his sense of being excluded from the inner sanctum where his own son is being treated like royalty; and Eliezer recognizes it as such, relishing it with bitter self-pity—even insisting, after another guest has vouched for him, that the security guard continue his interrogation. 

Partway through the movie, writer-director Joseph Cedar builds in a shrewd reversal. For years Eliezer has been passed over for the Academy’s highest honor, the Israel Prize. Now, via a call to his cell phone that literally knocks him off his feet, he learns he is to receive the long-coveted prize. What follows is a turn of events—I will not spoil it for you—in which Eliezer’s claim to the prize is challenged, and Uriel, who is privy to inside information, must decide whether to abandon his father’s cause or defend him to the hilt.

The choice proves revelatory. Initially, to some extent at least, we have sympathized with the father’s view of the son as an opportunistic lightweight. But now, under pressure, the son proves sturdy and true; in a tense meeting of the prize committee he rips into his father’s ancient rival, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who is trying to deny Eliezer the prize. Eliezer, meanwhile, shockingly does the opposite: during an interview with a young journalist questioning him about winning the prize, he launches a tirade about the decline of scholarship that bit by bit becomes a thinly veiled attack on his son. The respective defense and denunciation are edited, melodramatically but effectively, in a parallel sequence, evoking something biblical in the prospect of what pressure reveals: love and loyalty in the son, and in the father, an accumulated bitterness and envy that verges on treachery.

Footnote displays a curious disconnect between its trenchant themes and its nimble means, which include forays into animation and wry thought montages. At one point the father’s skeptical view of his son’s popularity is conveyed by a representation of Uriel delivering six lectures on one weekend, his face appearing as a pop-up talking head, blathering nonstop, on a map of the city. And much of the film plays to an insistently loud and jaunty soundtrack, replete with lounge-music rumbas and the like. But Cedar has a way of making light absurdity do his bidding. In one scene, he exploits the physical comedy of a brutally contentious professorial meeting held in a conference room so small that whenever someone enters or leaves, all must stand and perform a complicated reshuffling of bodies and chairs. Footnote keeps us similarly off balance. Awkwardness and discomfort form the film’s through lines, and its script alternates long quiet stretches with sudden extended outbursts, soliloquies of annoyance or retribution or pure spite.

Almost in passing, Footnote functions as a valedictory to the Gutenberg era. Books are everywhere—we seem to spend most of the movie beneath shelves crammed to the rafters—and in a culminating sequence, Eliezer discovers his son’s act of benevolent deception via a triumph of what used to be called close reading, his scholarly sleuthing through his son’s writings depicted in an action montage that is both wittily ironic and strangely suspenseful. But you watch it sensing that we are saying goodbye to all that. I happened to see Footnote on the day headlines announced the government’s lawsuit over the pricing of e-books, one of a number of recent events heralding the end of publishing as we have known it. Footnote captures how the old habits of rumination, silence, and deep focus are being replaced by the tweet-and-twitter values of instantaneity, promiscuous breadth, and the telegenic qualities conducive to YouTube—the very contrasts embodied by Eliezer and Uriel.

Like Cedar’s last film, the terse war drama Beaufort, which chronicled the Israeli Defense Force’s misadventure in southern Lebanon, Footnote won a nomination for the foreign-language-film Oscar (and, ironically, was passed over for the prize). The movie is at once profoundly textual—befitting a film about Talmudic hermeneutics, after all—and deeply personal. Its portrayal of filial angst may not evoke James Dean’s smoldering petulance, but its sardonic wryness gets to you, and poignantly conveys a son’s bafflement in the face of a fatherly fury that exceeds all reason.

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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