A comedy set in the Israeli academic world, and within that, in the rarefied realm of Talmudic scholarship, might sound like the ultimate film-festival niche product. But Sony has relatively high hopes for writer-director Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” which was a foreign-language Oscar nominee this year and won a screenplay award at Cannes last spring. Of course Sony is thinking primarily about Jewish audiences in New York, Los Angeles and a few other big cities, but Cedar’s dry, prickly, intelligent and inventive film is about intense professional rivalry and father-son conflict, and you don’t have to be Jewish or work in a university to understand that.
Furthermore, “Footnote” has two of the best performances I’ve seen in world cinema over the past year: One from Shlomo Bar Aba (apparently best known in Israel as a stand-up comic and stage actor), playing the aging, bitter philologist Eliezer Shkolnik, and the other from Lior Ashkenazi, one of the country’s best known movie stars, as his son and rival, Uriel. Both men teach at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but all is not well between them. In the opening scene, as Uriel thanks his father in a loquacious speech accepting his nomination to a prestigious academy, Eliezer can barely listen. He sits, hunched over and frowning, as if suffering from gout, headache and intestinal cramps all at the same time.
Eliezer embodies the patient, painstaking and utterly unsexy discipline of philological research, piecing through dozens or hundreds of ancient Talmudic scrolls in search of an authentic text — or rather, authentic bits of text, since hoping to re-create the whole thing is too grandiose. (Let me admit that I cannot possibly be an impartial consumer of this story: My father was a philologist, albeit in the quite different but just as geeky realm of Celtic languages.) Uriel, on the other hand, is a New Age-flavored rising star, both inside and outside the academy. As Cedar shows us in an amusing, partly animated montage, he is invited around the world to give talks on the social and moral issues raised by the Talmud. He makes guesses, speculates freely, aims his words at a wide popular audience and attracts wide-eyed graduate students who hang on his every word. If his father is a garrulous, uncompromising old bastard, Uriel is a bit of a pompous ass.
Cedar, an American-born Israeli filmmaker whose last work was the claustrophobic “Beaufort” (also an Oscar nominee), about a group of Israeli soldiers holed up in a one-time Crusader fort during the Lebanon war, has a genuine gift for atmosphere and dialogue. The basic comedy of the tense relationship between Eliezer and Uriel is sharply observed, and has a bristly, bitter undertone that isn’t funny at all. The outrageous plot twist that upends their relationship is both dreadful and hilarious, and also entirely too believable (since it derives from bureaucratic error). Let’s just say that Uriel is called upon to make an unexpected sacrifice for his father, which then blows up in his face, and the two men are left to wonder how much of their family life they’ve destroyed in the pursuit of academic glory. Does the Talmud feature a particular anecdote illustrating the principle that no good deed goes unpunished?
There are some distinctive moments of edgy, slapstick humor that will probably have particular resonance for Israeli viewers: A secret meeting held in a government office so small that everyone in the room must stand up whenever anyone enters or leaves, or the constant presence of security checkpoints and armed guards, who seem to have a particular fascination with the beleaguered, Job-like Eliezer. Both actors are tremendous: Bar Aba has the air of a near-boiling teakettle or an unexploded bomb, while Ashkenazi’s Uriel looks on with a mixture of bafflement, exhaustion and reluctant affection. Furthermore, “Footnote” is an Israeli film that has nothing to do with suicide bombings or cross-border invasions or the legacy of the Holocaust (except perhaps at several philosophical removes), and one with an acrid quality all its own.
“Footnote” is now playing in New York and opens March 16 in Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.