What does Oscar know?
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What does Oscar know?

'Footnote' is a film to watch over and again

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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A scene from the film “Footnote.”

Footnote defined: a piece of information, sometimes an anecdote, that is not necessarily verifiable, sometimes even outrageous, or silly, often only remotely relevant to the main text, but at the same time it is just too irresistible and juicy to leave out entirely; a Talmud researcher to filmmaker Joseph Cedar.

Just like a page of Talmud, Joseph Cedar’s new Israeli film “Footnote” is layered with various references and underlying footnotes. If you understand them, then it is just that much more fun and challenging, and a reason to watch the film a second or third time to delve even deeper. If you do not notice these visual and aural references, it matters not, because you will still find this a powerful film and quite the masterpiece. About how many films today can one say that? Joseph Cedar has hit a home run on this, his fourth feature film, even though he failed a second time to take home an Oscar.

“Footnote” is about two eccentric professors, a father and son, who have dedicated their life’s work to talmudic studies. In today’s academic world, the competition can be relentless, and it appears that it is no different in the small Talmudic Studies department at the university where both teach and do research, a school clearly modeled after the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Which one of the two, however, gets the attention and the accolades? Each is different in demeanor, personality, and public persona. It appears that Uriel, the son, with his winning manner, has become the popular one on campus, the one most sought after. Eliezer, the elder (Shlomo Bar Aba), whose love for the Talmud was clearly passed down to his child, seems otherwise to have little to show for his career, other than a “footnote” credit in a master volume written by his beloved teacher.

The film begins with Uriel Shkolnick (Lior Ashkenazi) gaining admittance into a prestigious academic society that has never admitted his father. Cedar mixes humor and pathos as we watch Uriel, in his acceptance speech, laud his father the teacher, who sits quietly in the audience.

It is at this very moment that we begin to understand the complex relationship between the two and the apparent competition that exists. Writer/director Joseph Cedar takes aim at the cutthroat nature of the academy by showing how love between a father and son, and a competition between two professors play out on the field of scholarship, where the end reward is recognition and fame. The film weaves in a variety of complex and “footnoted” moments, as we wait to see who will win this contest.

My favorite scene is a cleverly filmed meeting that takes place in a tiny room on campus, filled with university professors and bureaucrats, where everyone seems to be both physically and mentally on top of each other. In many respects, in this movie we are seated at a sporting event, waiting to see who will get the trophy.

Cedar is one of a new group of Israeli filmmakers who have begun to explore Jewish subjects. This new development in Israeli cinema is quite exciting as these Jewishly-connected artists are turning their attention to a world that is their own. Who could have imagined a story about teachers of the Talmud coming to the screen, much less being nominated for an Academy Award? In a pre-Academy Awards interview with The Jewish Standard, Cedar spoke about this motion picture being “as close a story that I’ve told about my own world.”

The Israel of today is a complex society and it is exciting to see this work and others that are being made that tackle some of the Jewish issues within the country. At the Ma’aleh School in Jerusalem, students are encouraged to explore facets of Jewish life through film. Even in some charedi communities, a few have turned to cinema for expression.

This is a most exciting trend and Cedar is clearly at the forefront of it. His first film, “Hahesder” (A Time of Favor) looked at fundamentalism and the reach of some rabbis. His second film, “Medurat Hashevet” (Campfire) was a powerful study of both the settler movement and the place of women in that world. “Beaufort” moved away from his previous work when the filmmaker took a hard look, in American Western style, at a group of Israeli soldiers cooped up in a medieval fortress as the war in Lebanon was winding down. Now with “Footnote,” Cedar is back on home turf.

“Footnote” has received its share of awards, including “Best Screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival and Israel’s Ophir Award for best picture of the year. The performances by Ashkenazi and Bar Aba are stellar.

Cedar is an extremely talented artist who uses the cinematic canvas with grace and innovation, and this film is a gem artistically and stylistically. Strangely, at the recent Academy Award ceremony in Los Angeles, Cedar was in his own competition, decked out in tuxedo black, hoping to bring back to Israel its first Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Film.” It was a trophy, in a bizarre twist of circumstance, that instead went to Iran.

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