Every culture has a responsibility to pass on its ancestry and heritage to each new generation. That’s the only way to ensure that traditions and histories survive the withering of passing years. In Israel, this task is doubly important for existential destruction is an ubiquitous fear; to preserve the work of scholars and historians who spend their days tracing back the years, making connections and discoveries, and encasing in time the culture of an entire people ensures that those people achieve a level of immortality—even if immortality for a single person remains impossible.
Footnote, the excellent Israeli drama by Joseph Cedar, posits these concepts intimately and extensively with exceptional attention to the details of its characters. Shlomo Bar Aba plays the cantankerous Professor Eliezer Shkolnik, a septuagenarian Talmudic philologist at a top university in Jerusalem. As an academic, Eliezer has been passed over again and again by his peers: decades of scripture and manuscript dissection have long gone unrecognized by his field’s highly venerated elite. We learn in one of the film’s many quirky, narrated, tangential segments (straight from Amelie’s discarded reels) that 30 years of Eliezer’s backbreaking scholarship was hijacked and published by a bitter rival. Now, his only claim to fame is a footnote in the book of his mentor recognizing an iota of contribution.
What complicates things is that his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is also a professor of Talmudic history at the same university. Only Uriel is constantly being exalted for his work, receiving a multitude of prizes and honors. In the film’s opening segment, Uriel is granted membership into the highly esteemed Israel Academy, but throughout his five-minute acceptance speech, the camera never leaves Eliezer’s heartbroken face. Cedar’s astute artifice is effective at educing an ocean of unspoken animosity between father and son. Even though Uriel thanks him warmly in his words, citing his father’s vocational philosophy as a major influence on his own publications, Eliezer reads the peace offering as mere condescension.
When the prestigious Israel Prize—an annual award recognizing Israel’s brightest minds—announces its winner later on, will it be Eliezer’s year? Will he finally receive the honor he so desperately craves? Or will his son swoop in and win it from under his nose? With a number of inventive visual flourishes and just the right amount of absurdist humor, Footnote is not your average story of familial rivalry; instead, it’s a thematically rich tale of jealousy and sacrifice told with nearly parabolic Old Testament allusions, and also more modern insinuations about the importance of personal as well as ancestral legacy. Populated by deeply complex characters in a provocative narrative billowing with moral opacity, the film finds a fervid distinction between a scholar’s own professional responsibility to the truth and Man’s more complicated adherence to it. As Eliezer begins to comprise his integrity and morality for the sake of a mere prize, we can see he’s really gathering artifacts to aggrandize and preserve his own existence. Footnote becomes less about who someone is and more about how they’re remembered.
Parallels between father and son are drawn—both have offices stacked ceiling high with documents—to remind us of the tragic irony of their feud. It also creates an allegorical conflict between Man and his past—fueled by the fear he might repeat the mistakes of those who came before him. The two central performances bleed with candid emotionality. Bar Aba plays Eliezer as an anti-social grump who’s alienated his family and colleagues out of bitter spite. But behind his sullen visage is a sensitive old man, desperate to achieve the kind of immortality that the historical and religious subjects he dedicates his life to studying have done. Ashkenazi gives Uriel a dignity and propriety that his father lacks, but as the situation grows more precarious, Uriel starts to resemble his father in manner and attitude; he even severely and unjustly reprimands his own teenage son in a scene exploring the intergenerational legacy of familial dysfunction.To understand Israeli cinema is to understand how the past and the present are always linked, like a father to his son. From their banishment from the Holy Land 2000 years ago to the Inquisition to the pogroms to the Holocaust to today, Jews collectively recognize the fragility of their small existence throughout history. Just as Israel’s geographical snugness is lampooned in a scene depicting a meeting in a cramped and crowded office, the sense of existential crisis is manifest in Eliezer. At one point, his son defends him against the head of the academic council by saying, “You’re seeking honors, just like every other mortal.” Footnote’s depiction of a cranky old man’s dishonorable crusade for honor leaves you with the sense that his actions weren’t only understandable—they were somehow necessary.