ISRAELI OSCAR NOMINEE OPENS IN MILWAUKEE
Alma Zack Lior Ashkenazi
Directed by Joseph Cedar Rated PG
Professor Eliezer Shkolnik sits mortified among his fellow academics, listening uncomfortably as the speakers heap praise on the other professor Shkolnik, his son Uriel.
As the camera pulls closer to Eliezer, Uriel takes the rostrum to accept an award and commend his father for being the shoulders he stood on while reaching for greatness. Eliezer’s face only tightens. Uriel is the star of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University while Eliezer, a professor in the same department, is refused readmission to the awards ceremony by a guard who doesn’t recognize him. Most men are proud of their sons’ accomplishments, but when his son overtakes him in his own field of Talmudic studies, Eliezer feels the sting of salt added to his wounds of resentment.
Footnote, a 2012 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, is a penetrating group portrait of the competitive, backbiting upper reaches of academia where the pursuit of scholarship is bent by jealousy, envy and grievance. Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar seems to know this world intimately, and the actors, Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer and Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel, look as at home in the life of the mind as they do in the uncomfortable silences of soured family life. The theme of father-and-son conflict and intergenerational rivalry transcends its university setting and lends itself to high drama, yet Cedar chose a lighter tone set by whimsical music, slightly cheeky narrative titles and filmmaking that loudly reminds us: We are watching a movie! At one point the screen fills with a numbered list headed, “A Few Things We Should Know About Eliezer Shkolnik.” But as the story progresses, we learn even more.
Eliezer’s story is one that has been heard many times in academia. He had spent years on an obscure research quest when, just as he was ready to publish his findings, a rival professor rushed a book into print on the same arcane subject. Eliezer is crushed, consoled only by being cited as a footnote in the work of another great scholar. And while many disappointed men would channel their frustrated dreams onto their sons, especially if their children pursued the same profession, Uriel’s success was a reproach in Eliezer’s eyes.
The uneasy family stasis threatens to spin out of control when Eliezer is informed that he will be the recipient of the prestigious annual Israel Prize, an award the old professor had been denied for many years (in favor of lesser men, as he sees it). But a clerk for the awards committee made a mistake. The Israel Prize is actually intended for Uriel Shkolnik, not Eliezer. What to do now? How can Uriel break the news to the already bitter man who thinks he’s finally receiving the recognition long denied him?
Footnote affords a glimpse of the dusty, biblical landscape where ancient sages laid the building stones for the Shkolniks’ intellectual and ethical debates. Mostly, though, the film’s backdrop reveals a security state where everyday life has accommodated the presence of armed guards and checkpoints everywhere. Footnote lost for Best Foreign Language Film to the entry from Iran, A Separation.
Opens April 20 at Downer Theatre.