Israeli film takes droll look at family, academic rivalries

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, April 4, 2012 4:35pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Another of the five nominees in the best foreign-language film category arrives this week. Fittingly enough, it’s a movie about a prize, and the toll the selection process takes on a very competitive father and son.

“Footnote” was Israel’s entry in the Oscar stakes. The award in question is the Israel Prize, the country’s top cultural honor. For years a cranky, anti-social Talmudic scholar, Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Schlomo Bar-Aba), has craved such recognition.

He has labored in obscurity and his greatest achievement was scooped by another researcher. He is, however, mentioned in a footnote to a massive encyclopedia, a footnote he takes immense pride in.

One day, Professor Shkolnik gets the call: He has won the Israel Prize. He doesn’t exactly smile, but something like satisfaction crosses his face.

Ah, but there’s a problem, a big one, and this is what “Footnote” is all about. Shkolnik’s son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is also an acclaimed scholar, but a more popular one. He and his father have a frosty relationship, which is made even more uncomfortable when Uriel learns some new information about the prize.

Even though this sounds like the makings of a somewhat esoteric tale, rest assured that director Joseph Cedar (of the previous Oscar nominee “Beaufort”) knows how much charged-up drama there is in family tensions and academic rivalries.

The movie makes a wise shift from a satirical slant early on, in which the screen is filled with helpful facts about the life of the scholar, to a more serious mood later. Pettiness, betrayal, back-biting — all the lesser instincts emerge when something valuable is at stake.

One strong turning point is a heated meeting involving the bestowers of the prize, who gather in a room so small they have to get out of their seats just to close the door if they want to keep the proceedings secret.

One key critic of Eliezer Shkolnik’s nomination is dead set against the man getting the award and the negotiations to pacify this power broker will have a huge cost.

Amusingly, the extended Shkolnik family attend a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” that Broadway musical version of classic Jewish stories. This is just the kind of popularization of scholarship that Eliezer usually denounces, but he can’t help humming the theme music on the way home.

And what about that other competition? “Footnote” lost the Oscar; the winner, deservedly, was Iran’s “A Separation.” As “Footnote” suggests, it seems any awards competition these days is fraught with extra tension.

“Footnote” (3 stars)

A long-suffering Talmudic scholar may finally get his shot at winning the Israel Prize for cultural contributions; but his equally scholarly son might have something to say about that. This foreign-language film Oscar nominee takes a droll look at academic and family rivalries. In Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Rated: PG for subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45th.

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