Footnote enthralls with dramatic family dynamics

While the trials and tribulations of academia might not seem like the most enthralling subject in the world, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote makes them just that.

Family drama · Eliezer (Schlomo Bar-Aba), a father and writer, must cope with his son’s success while Eliezer struggles to achieve his goals. - Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A sharp and merciless comedy, Footnote centers on the conflict between a father and son’s careers in academia — the father a bitter failure and his son a burgeoning success.

This contrast is emphasized from the film’s first scene, which sets the audience up for a dark comedy that questions the strength of family ties — an intentness that resulted in its nomination for best foreign language film at the 2012 Oscars.

Well-liked son and academic, Uriel Shkolnik has been recently admitted into the Israeli Academy of Sciences. In the moments preceding his speech at the institution’s welcoming ceremony, Uriel waits in the seat next to his sour father, Eliezer. Audiences can see from his trademark scowl that his life has not fulfilled his expectations; he is a man shunned by his colleagues, unrecognized for his minute studies of the Talmud, a Jewish text.

Though they sit so close to one another, the two are living in disparate worlds. The camera holds its focus on Eliezer even as Uriel gives his speech, and the viewer sees the mark of the seething father so used to being passed over. After all, his crowning achievement is having been footnoted, once, in his mentor’s book on Talmudic studies.

This stark contrast between the demeanor of father and son gives the viewer a hint of the tension to ensue.

Eliezer’s dream has always been the Israel Prize, the ultimate recognition of his academic pursuits, a feat he has failed to grasp throughout his career. His dream comes true, but his nomination is more complicated than expected; it is entrenched in the film’s central twist, a twist that polarizes father and son further.

These painstaking twists make Cedar’s film a comedic nightmare; the audience is invested in the stakes of Footnote, yet it cannot help but see the humor in things. Even in this bitter conflict, not everything is tragic. Cedar gives us a silver lining.

The plotlines fall equally between father and son, both with whom the audience can empathize, yet at once the viewer recognizes them as imperfect and even tiresome. The two leads play their roles rightly; they are fully flawed human beings that the viewer cannot help but want to understand.

Not to mention, Footnote  contains a superb cast, offering exceptionally skilled performances. Specifically, in his role as the elder Shkolnik, Shlomo Bar-Aba hardly speaks, proving that actions really can speak louder than words. Even without much to say, the audience gets the full impression of his disappointment and the weight of his demeanor.

As Eliezer’s son, Lior Ashkenazi has a genial presence even while wrestling with the most harrowing ethical dilemma of his life. As a pair, they highlight the parallels and disparities between father and son.

But this film isn’t for everyone. Many viewers may be frustrated by the film’s evasive plot long before its climax. The humor is rather cut and dry though it is thoroughly enjoyable to those who have a more sardonic sense of humor. Meanwhile, those who enjoy a more straightforward, slapstick sense of humor may not find as much appeal in the film’s more acerbic comedic moments.

Furthermore, sound in Footnote becomes almost overwhelming through Amit Poznansky’s grandiose and unnecessarily dramatic score — a bombastic set that sometimes smothers the scenes themselves. Instead of taking away from the film’s subtlety, it would have been more effective to hear music that complemented it instead.

Still, if one can look past these minute flaws, Footnote is an engaging experience.

Besides the contrast between the two Shkolniks, the picture is a contrast in and of itself. The film opens with Poznansky’s dramatic overture, yet it ends with a poignant, dialogue-free sequence. In between, it’s full of playful transitions, frantic subtitles and striking chapter names.

At its heart is conflict — between Uriel and the Israel Prize committee and between father and son. And Cedar’s ambitious stylistic choices supplement an already powerful script.

Astute, comical and deeply sad, Footnote is based on a script that adamantly digs at the rigors and stuffiness of academia. The discord at its core pulls the viewer in, especially with the leads’ expert performances. All in all, Footnote is deserving of its Oscar nod.