3 out of 4 stars
It's not often that the children of famous and/or successful parents follow in their footsteps and later eclipse their achievements. It's also not very common for a parent to secretly wish that their child didn't do as well or better than them. Both of these things take place in "Footnote," an Israeli film that competed for the most recent Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Father Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) are both academics working in similar arenas of Talmudic studies. Eliezer spent decades painfully researching the history of the Talmud in the hopes of coming up with the definitive version of the ancient text -- and he succeeded. Unfortunately for him, another scholar -- who spent just a sliver of that same time and expended next to no effort -- did the same thing first and got quite famous.
Eliezer isn't the kind of guy that wants fame but he is desperate for the recognition of his peers. He simply wants those that are on the same mental plane as he to validate his tireless achievements. He wants to be more than just a footnote in a book written by his chief rival.
The only thing Uriel inherited from his father was a love of Judaic history. Unlike Eliezer, Uriel relishes fame, the fortune that comes from being a best-selling author and the fawning adoration of his peers and the public. A relatively young man (50-ish) working a field dominated by men his father's age, he is the biggest and fastest fish in a very small, still-water pond.
What Eliezer doesn't seem to realize (or maybe he does and just doesn't want to admit it) is that being held in high regard requires both intellect and politically astute people skills. He's got a lot of one and none of the other and his son has both in droves.
The movie opens with Uriel receiving yet another prestigious award but the camera stays fixed on Eliezer for the entire scene. He sits motionless, stone-faced, doing a slow-burn. Even though Uriel credits him magnanimously over and over again in thanks for his own success, the old man is simply growing tired of being upstaged by his child.
Just when you think the percolating acrimony couldn't get worse, it does. Both men are under consideration for the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian honor, given annually to the person that has made extraordinary contributions to Israeli/Jewish culture.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar -- a past winner of several Israeli Academy Awards -- knows his subject matter well. You might think a movie about Talmudic studies and academia would be dry as a bone and, in many ways, it is. Intended mostly as a satire, the movie's humor is drenched in stoic sarcasm and is not something many without extensive knowledge of Israel will get. In that light, this facet of the film, while well-executed, will go over the heads of even the most astute audience members.
On the upside, almost everyone will get the father-son competition thing right away and for the duration. With just a few tweaks and a change of venue to anywhere else in the world, the story could easily be a mother-daughter rivalry or even something involving siblings. In other words, it's universal with its message.
Another part of the film that could disappoint is its lack of satisfactory closure. It does end sufficiently, but not enough of the core issue is resolved -- and that might be Cedar's ultimate point. If there is an intense inner-family feud taking place somewhere, it's not going to go away until one of them dies, concedes or chooses to selflessly fall on their sword. After watching "Footnote," it's easy to see why pride is one of the most toxic of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Presented in Hebrew with English subtitles. (Sony Classics)