'Footnote' is an enormously clever film by an American born Israeli filmmaker, Joseph Cedar. It concerns the rivalry between father-son Talmudic scholars, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik. Before seeing the film, I assumed that this was going to be a film about insular Hasidics, chronicling the rivalry between Talmudic scholars in an ultra-religious community. However, that's not the case at all; we soon learn that the two principals are actually academics in the Talmudic department at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Uriel can best be described as either a Conservative or Modern Orthodox Jew and Eliezer, seemingly completely secular (as he does not wear a yarmulke).
Utilizing inter-titles, cross-cutting and an intrusive musical score (that some have compared to Shostakovich), Cedar offers up an amusing back story for both father and son, during the first ten minutes of the film. We learn that Eliezer has been toiling in obscurity at the University, engaging in arcane research that few care about and teaching one class a year in which only one student attends. In contrast, Uriel heads the Department and is insanely popular with the student body and the community at large. Eliezer's problem with his son is that he deems his research as bogus—that he's only interested in providing modern interpretations of serious Talmudic passages (familial relations in ancient times is one research area that Uriel has garnered accolades for, which his father regards as a joke).
There's much more about Eliezer that comes to light that places him firmly in the camp of the confirmed curmudgeon. His grand claim to fame is that he's mentioned in a footnote in the work of a famed Talmudic scholar, Feinberg, who Eliezer regards as his mentor. Eliezer also spent years interpreting more recent texts to reconstruct a lost manuscript from the Middle Ages. When a rival scholar, Grossman, found the original manuscript, he refused to share it with Eliezer and published his own findings, thus extirpating years of Eliezer's work, now deemed irrelevant by the Talmudic academic community. All this has made the curmudgeon bitter, magnified of course by the community's acclaim for the ever popular son. Nonetheless, the humor stems from Eliezer's perseverance in the face of total ostracism, despite his complete lack of social skills and mean-spirited demeanor.
If Eliezer's narcissism is a tad bit psychotic, Uriel's can best be described as a lesser neuroticism. His colleagues at the University make it clear (while talking amongst themselves) that Uriel needs constant stroking and any kind of dissent will result in retaliation on his part. Nonetheless, Uriel shows depth of character in the film's defining moment. That occurs when the prestigious 'Israel Prize' is awarded to Eliezer instead of Uriel, due to a clerical error. In a very amusing scene, a committee at the Ministry of Education meets in an extremely small file room with Uriel in order to maintain secrecy, explain their 'mistake' and request that he inform his father of what has transpired.
Despite all of the Eliezer's jealousy and contempt for his son, Uriel defends the father in front of Grossman (who is head of the Prize committee) and who insists that the award must be rescinded and given to the true intended recipient (Uriel). Things get so heated that Uriel punches Grossman in the nose but then apologizes. Eventually Grossman caves in but with two demands: Uriel must write the judge's considerations and never accept the award for himself, ever again.
The emerging scenes are perhaps the best in the film. While writing the judge's considerations, Uriel keeps amending his text, and upon further reflection, realizes Grossman was right about his father all along—that he really is a mediocrity and doesn't deserve the prize. Eliezer, who regards himself as a philologist, ironically shows his mettle by realizing (utilizing his text investigatory skills) that Uriel was responsible for composing the 'judge's considerations'. Eliezer finally recalls the original conversation in its entirety, where he believed he had been awarded the Israel Prize; with his memory clearer, he finally figures it out: the prize was obviously intended for Uriel and not him!
While Cedar utilizes a comic tone for most of the film, the denouement unfortunately veers toward melodrama in the closing sequences. This can be seen when Uriel grows sour on the idea that he's been cheated out of the Israel Prize, and takes it out on his teenage son, who he demands to make something of his life. Cedar does nothing to develop the teenage son's character and Uriel's sudden transformation into a sour puss (just like this father), does much to ruin the clever humor of the earlier scenes.
While Eliezer wasn't much of a likable character to begin with, you could at least laugh at him for most of the film. But when he realizes (through his true philological talents) that the Israel Prize was not meant for him, he's poised to accept the Award, as a last, petty, spiteful act toward his son. What we needed there was some kind of twist. Perhaps either Eliezer's (underutilized) wife could have stepped in or both the wives could have come up with some kind of plan to 'save the day'. The way it stands now, Eliezer's 'victory' is a Pyrrhic one, and the estrangement between the father and son, is worse than when we saw them at the beginning of the film.
Despite the heavy-handed ending, I enjoyed 'Footnote'. It not only ridicules the pettiness found in academia but goes deeper by exposing the narcissism in familial relations. The conflict between Talmudic scholars is not an easy topic to be made into a full-length film. Cedar has for a good part of his film, delivered a most clever and eye-popping experience.