The rich helping of grand Movie Music ladled over the great Israeli drama Footnote is just one of the many touches from filmmaker Joseph Cedar that make this invigorating Competition entry my favorite movie to date. (To date, by the way, is Saturday early evening, after a screening of the sadistic and meaninglessly voyeuristic Austrian pedophile drama Michael and before a screening of the latest from the Dardennes brothers.) Yes indeed, the music assures, there is no dramatic subject more titanic, more fraught, more Biblically elemental, more hilariously heartbreaking (or is it heartbreakingly hilarious?) and (in Cedar’s talented hands) more cinematic than the relationship between an
elderly father and his grown son. Especially when the father and son are rival professors, both specializing in the arcane specialty of Talmudic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Here’s the crisis in a nutshell: Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba, with a dyspeptic scowl Walter Matthau would have admired), has devoted his entire life to a stubbornly precise, methodical, microscopic study of the subject, with few accolades to show for it. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi, above, communicating a dozen conflicting emotions at once behind professorial eyeglasses) approaches the subject from a broader, more anecdotal and interpretive point of view, and he’s got a shelf of awards. Then one day, Eliezer is named for a prize, a big one. And really big trouble begins.
You say you’re not interested in Talmudic studies? Doesn’t matter! The Old Testament-sized father-son tensions are relatable in any culture. Eliezer and Uriel, each created with marvelous specificity, are the most interesting, flawed, realistic characters I’ve seen in ages. Meanwhile, Cedar pulls off a feat of intellectual and cinematic elegance: The whole movie is, in its way, a Talmudic lesson. There’s real philosophical depth and clarity to the script. Plus, it’s funny and smart, it’s told with wild, inventive cinematic flourishes and experimental grace notes, and Bar Aba and Ashkenazi deserve awards on their own shelves for their performances.
Footnote is Cedar’s fourth feature, following three previous beauties: Beaufort (2007), Campfire (2004), and Time of Favor (2001). He’s the real deal.