'Footnote' - A Review: A Dark Comedy from Israel; or, Woe To The Children Banished From - Or Even Present At - Their Father's Table

Footnote

 

In what likely represents its movie debut, the word "homeoteleuton" -- referring to a specific type of copyist's error that occurs during the transcribing of a text -- appears in"Footnote."

I tell you this because the word gives an indication of the playfully pretentious intelligence at work in this Israeli film about a rivalry of almost biblical intensity between father and son academics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At the same time, I'm worried the word will scare you off, especially when I add that it appears in a subtitle.

Don't let it. Winner of the Best Screenplay Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and a nominee this year for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, "Footnote"manages to be very funny and very suspenseful. The latter aspect is especially notable, because "Footnote" is inhabited by thinkers rather than doers: men who work up a sweat, as far as we can tell, only when very nervous or on a racquetball court. (The women in the story are treated as mere adjuncts to their self-centered "brilliant" lifemates.)

To enliven his cunning if esoteric narrative, writer-director Joseph Cedar uses an active, very "mainstream" music score, in conjunction with the digital editing tricks of commercial cinema; the slick technique is the sweet that dilutes the story's sour. The movie might have had more emotional impact and less (relatively) popular appeal if it had been more somber, but "Footnote" is as much a comedy as a drama, albeit a dark one; the premise enables Cedar to spoof academic infighting and professorial egomania even as he dissects a love-hate blood connection that has been fraught with tension and mistrust ever since Abraham was willing to slay Isaac.

Set in a militarized and somewhat hostile if privileged Jerusalem (armed guards and security checkpoints seem ubiquitous, suggesting "Footnote" is as much a disquisition on the state of Israel as on intellectual culture), "Footnote" opens with a brilliant, lengthy scene in which stoic, prickly and (in his mind) underappreciated Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), a philologist who has devoted his life to an ancient version of the Talmud, listens with an apparent lack of enthusiasm to a speech being delivered by his ingratiating and much-honored son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), a Talmud professor who is a celebrity as well as a scholar.

We soon learn the father is resentful of the son, and the son is wary of the father. The men treat each other with cordiality, but the twists of the narrative drive them further apart. The movie makes an irony if not a mockery of the Talmudic advisement: "Blessed is the son who has studied with his father, and blessed the father who has instructed his son."

If the characters are distant, the space is not. Cedar makes smart use of the themes of confinement and entrapment. His protagonists haunt rooms crowded with oppressive piles of books, and the tension between comedy and drama reaches its peak in a beautifully staged sequence -- among the most memorable movie scenes of the year -- in which angry emotions erupt in a campus meeting room so cramped it suggests the famous Marx Brothers stateroom in "A Night at the Opera."

Trivia footnote: The arrival of this film means that four of this year's five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film -- "Footnote," "Bullhead," "In Darkness" and "A Separation" -- have earned a theatrical booking in Memphis. The remaining film is "Monsieur Lazhar," in French, from Canada.

In Hebrew with English subtitles, "Footnote" opened Friday (April 27) at the MalcoRidgeway Four, where it will remain through at least May 10.