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An intriguing tale of an ethical dilemma complicated by academic rivalries and family tensions is told in erratic fashion in “Footnote.” In his fourth feature, New York-born-and-trained Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar arrestingly tackles what feels like deeply felt personal material, a simmering intellectual and emotional feud between a comparably brilliant father and son, but makes several crucial miscalculations, beginning with the use of one of the most intrusive and overbearing musical scores in memory. Jewish and academically inclined audiences worldwide will respond to numerous aspects of this unusual drama, although it is paradoxically both too broad and too esoteric for the general art house public.
On the esoteric side, the picture is steeped in the world of Talmudic scholarship, a highly specialized field pursued herein by the cranky, uncommunicative Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba, a big television and theater comedy star in Israel) and his driven, expansive son Uriel (leading man type Lior Ashkenazi, here adorned with a beard). In the subjectively shot opening scene, Eliezer stews uncomfortably while Uriel is officially installed in the academic Academy, with which the older man has an adversarial relationship.
Already, Amit Poznansky’s pounding, insistent scoring guarantees that “Footnote” will not be a subtle affair, but it’s worse than that, as it demands attention for its own sake and seriously distracts from whatever is going on at the moment. Similarly heavy-handed is Cedar’s use of bombastic digressions—perhaps he would call them footnotes—detailing key points in the lives and careers of both of these proud scholars who, in radically different ways, have devoted their lives to analyzing the historical, linguistic and literary fine points of Judaism’s sacred texts.
The film finally finds a sharp focus when, to no one’s surprise more than his own, Eliezer learns he has won the greatest possible honor, one that has eluded him for two decades, the Israel Prize. As the stunned Uriel observes, his perennially bitter father will “have to reboot his whole personality” in the wake of this accolade.
But that’s not the half of it, as startling subsequent events unfold. Revelation of a key mid-stream plot twist would be a gross injustice, so suffice it to say that in the wake of an exceptionally intense and well written long scene involving partisan, grudge-holding scholars in a tiny office, torrents of bitterness, jealousy, second thoughts and all-round ill-will drench the proceedings.
Even when all is said and done, however, the character of the father has not been nearly as well developed as that of the son, leaving a serious imbalance where it feels there should have been equality. Whereas Uriel regularly spills his innermost feelings to his wife, Eliezer, his own wife’s presence notwithstanding, has no comparable confidant. Despite the potency of the issues and emotions stirred up, matters remain rather out of whack at the conclusion, which is marred by Cedar’s jarring decision to cut away to a dance performance.
Top performance comes from Ashkenazi, who lends presence and persistent energy to the role of the dynamic, often anguished son.
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