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...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.