“Footnote” is a giddily entertaining film about, of all things, a war between father-and-son Talmudic scholars. The Coen Brothers must be ticked that they didn’t think of the idea first.
Much of Joseph Cedar’s comedy-drama (which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) has the askew inventiveness of a Coen Brothers film, with tight close-ups, fanciful dream sequences, and dark humor. Cedar, whose last film was the tense war drama "Beaufort," manages to make the sublime ridiculous.
Shlomo Bar-Aba plays Eleizer Shkolnik, an embittered scholar largely ostracized by the scholarly community in Israel. Decades of work was undone in an instant by a rival, and now Eleizer’s only claim to fame is a small footnote of thanks in the work of a great Talmudic scholar. We often see Eleizer wearing noise-canceling headphones, a scowl on his face, a neat illustration for how much he has shut the world off.
His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is also a Talmudic scholar, but more of an entertaining populist, the sort who might appear on talk shows. In one surreal touch, we see little Uriels pop up all over a map of Jerusalem, illustrating not only his popularity, but how his constant public presence irritates his less successful father.
In one early scene, Eleizer sits enraged as Uriel accepts yet another honor, looking almost ready to jump out of his seat and throttle his son. In a huff, he storms outside -- and then security won’t let him back in the building. Hardly anyone knows him.
The plot turns on the prestigious Israel Prize, which is awarded to Eleizer, and nobody is more stunned than him. The rift that this causes, and in particular the reasons why Eleizer really got the Prize, turn “Footnote” into an academic farce that may be familiar to anyone who has sat through a UW faculty meeting. (In fact, there’s a dilly of a scene set at a scholarly meeting, inside a crammed little office, in which tension spills over into physical blows.)
“Footnote” could have been broader; it actually gets quite serious towards the end, as father and son confront the magnitude of their feud. But as a satire of the gulf between lofty intellectual ambitions and the petty maneuvering for respect and acclaim among those intellectuals, it’s a gas.