Rating:Joseph Cedar’s Footnote explores a relationship between father and son, which seems, at first, worrying. While I know stuff like The Godfather and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade exist, hearing that a film is about a father and a son still sets off Costner alarms that force me to expect some maudlin affair where, despite Tom Hanks’ rational request 20 years ago, people still cry about baseball. Fuuuuck that.
Good thing Joseph Cedar’s Footnote isn’t about sports, but rather focuses on the world of incredibly narrow academics, following unappreciated Talmud scholar Eliezer Shkolnik (Schlomo Bar-Aba) who is accidentally told he’s being awarded the prestigious Israel Prize when, in fact, the reward is meant to go to the more famous, more respected Talmud scholar Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) – Eliezer’s son. Given that premise, the easy approach would be to create an active rivalry between the two Shkolniks full of sabotage and underhandedness until one of them goes too far, they realize what’s really important in life and have a tearful hug-out session as the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” plays and the credits roll. Instead, Uriel decides very early in the film – in the midst of a really intense meeting room scene with the Prize committee – to keep quiet and ensure that the committee, much to their chagrin, gives his father the award they already promised him.
Because there wouldn’t be a movie after this point, Cedar creates a very organic complication to Uriel’s noble selflessness – Eliezer himself. While we at first feel bad for the distant, internal professor, it turns out that Eliezer is actually a huge dick who bitterly disparages everyone around him, including Uriel and his work. Uriel, feeling wounded and unappreciated, struggles to keep a stiff upper lip about the situation, to say the least.
It’s this characterization of the two men that makes Cedar’s film a worthwhile exploration of father and son relationships. Both of them are complete knobs and clearly hard to live with, but Cedar masterfully makes us care about them both as he shifts the film’s perspective back and forth between the professors. As a filmmaker, Cedar makes no judgments on either man, though he suggests that Eliezer’s lack of empathy may be a result of some form of autism. However, on the topic of fathers and sons he approaches that relationship as one of selfishness – both men are fully aware of how other people’s actions affect them, but not how their actions affect others, particularly as Uriel takes out his frustrations on his own son, suggesting a never-ending vicious cycle in the Shkolnik family tree.
All this talk of fathers and sons makes Footnote sound like a bummer of a movie, but this isn’t entirely the case. Footnote is probably more drama than comedy, but it’s also a very understated, even dark kind of funny – a comedy of manners based on the relationships between not only fathers and sons, but also academics who have decades-old rivalries based on arbitrary disagreements about obscure minutia.
Footnote is a very valuable film about fathers and sons, but it won’t have you rushing out of the theatre to phone your dad or looking into your mom’s donor. Which is precisely why it’s such a success – Joseph Cedar’s depiction of real, complex relationships should do more for a viewer than manipulation and sentimentality.