|Israel is hoping that the Joseph Cedar film “The Footnote” walks away with an Oscar on Feb. 26.|
LOS ANGELES ““ Joseph Cedar is on a pretty good run: The Israeli director has made four movies in his 11-year career, and the first three have represented his country at the Academy Awards for best foreign-language film.
Before this week began, one made the cut of five finalists, but a Cedar film has yet to capture a golden statuette. In fact, no Israeli film has ever won an Oscar.
Cedar and many of his countrymen are hoping that will change with his fourth entry, “Footnote,” which was among the five Best Foreign Language Film nominees announced on Tuesday in advance of the 84th Annual Academy Awards.
Sixty-three countries, from Albania to Vietnam, vied for a coveted spot in the foreign-language film category. Nine were named as semi-finalists before Tuesday’s announcement.
Last year was the first in memory that no domestic or foreign film dealing with the Shoah or the Nazi era was entered in any Oscar category. On that basis, it appeared that the “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” era had passed and that the historical genre would deal with more recent conflicts and genocides.
It took only a year to prove that perception wrong with Poland’s 2012 entry, “In Darkness,” which also received a nod on Tuesday. The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women, and children hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland. Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewer worker and part-time thief who knew all the hiding places in the underground system – it is where he worked and stashed his loot.
At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. As in her other works, the strengths and weakness of the victims, heroes, villains, and bystanders vary with time and circumstance.
“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a telephone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”
With “Footnote,” Cedar centers on the rivalry between two talmudic scholars who also are father and son. It is a sharp contrast from the New York native’s previous film, “Beaufort,” a war film with an anti-war message.
What could be more boring than a father-and-son rivalry over studying Talmud? Thinking that would be a mistake. In the hands of Cedar, 43, this film has more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture or apocalyptic sci-fi epic.
Both Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, father and son, are shining lights in the Department of Talmudic Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce. To the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring countries or the rise and fall of national economies.
The director, himself the son of a renowned Hebrew University professor, the biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists resemble his family or their relationships.
“The film’s talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” said the younger Cedar, who as an Orthodox Jew is a rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”
Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships.
“What if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate?” asks Cedar, who explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.” “Will I tell him how I really feel or preserve family harmony?”
On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word, and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth,” he said.
Although “Footnote” has not yet been released in theaters in the United States, it has received favorable reviews. At the Cannes Film Festival, “Footnote” was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.
The Oscar competition in the foreign-language category is rough, however, and the Academy Awards selection committee is widely considered unpredictable, if not erratic.
In both the United States and Europe, the critical favorite is the Iranian entry, “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals, including most recently the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. (Israel won the Golden Globe in this category back in 1971 with “The Policeman.”)
“A Separation,” a film by Asghar Farhadi, masterfully combines easily recognizable situations – an impending divorce in an upper-middle-class family; the care of an elderly and infirm parent; the frustrations of poverty on lower-class families – with the strange atmosphere, pieties, and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.
The Oscars will be presented Feb. 26.
JTA Wire Service