Notes on Joseph Cedar’s Footnote (Hearat Shulayim, 2011) (Movie Notes)

30 Mar

Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar has been racking up nominations and awards since his first feature film, Time of Favor, was released in 2000.  Last year’s Footnote garnered his second Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Clearly, I’m a little late to the party, but I thought it was time to see what all the accolades are about.

The film simmers with unspoken words, pent up resentments, and difficult filial love. In tight frames, faces struggle to maintain their masks. In domestic and work spaces, people are surrounded and separated by piles of books.  Yet, while the psychological drama is the focal point of the film, Footnote has a fascinating subtext: change within the academy. Cedar conveys the struggle between old and new approaches to scholarhip and the delicate relationships of intellectuals to their work and each other. These are the details of university life that perhaps only matter to its denizens. Cedar is not afraid to tackle the minute struggles within Israeli life, and the micro-universe of its intellectual elites. Through the wounded pride and arcane principles of the intellecutal elites, Cedar demonstrates the multiple barriers to any kind of cultural change. His other films all have military characters and backdrops of war, armed struggle, and Middle East conflict. Footnote moves into a seemingly peaceful space, only to expose the battles waged there.

From Wikipedia.com

Footnote centers around philogist Eliezer Shkolnick who has dedicated his entire career to studying variations of versions of Jerusalem Talmud.  He remains unrecognized, frustrated, and underaccomplished largely because another scholar, Dr.Yehuda Grossman, published similar work before his was completed. Relegated to second-class academic citizenship, bitter, and resentful, Shkolnick clings to his “scientific research methods” and eschews modern approaches to Talmudic scholarship.

Shkolnick’s son Uriel is also a Talmudic scholar at Hebrew University. His scholarship appears colored by culutral studies, and looks at contextual and historical issues surrounding the Talmud. According to his father, it is not scientific work. According to the academy and the public, the younger Shkolnick is an engaging, exciting scholar, worthy of the highest praise and awards.

The story begins at Uriel induction into the Israeli Academy of Arts & Sciences. Eliezer sits, expressionless, as the award is made and offers only the most perfunctory applause. The happiest day of his son’s life is the saddest day of Eliezer’s life. As an acceptance speech, Uriel tells the story of how his father told him to use the word “teacher” to describe father’s profession on a fourth grade homework assignment.  The moral seems to be that no matter how hoity-toity the academy, the essence of what a professor and researcher does in teach, and that that is the essence of what a father does as well.

As the anecdote of that fourth grade memory is repeated during the course of the film, it explains the complexity of this father-son relationship. Eliezer didn’t, as Uriel actually remembers it, tell him to use the word “teacher.” He physically forced Uriel to write it. Uriel’s intepretation, privately, is that his father was mocking his teacher. This memory seems to mark everything that Uriel does as a scholar, a man, and a father. In that moment, his father-hero became his father-tormenter. As a colleague Eliezer demands flattery; as a teacher he is dismissive and mocking of his students; as a husband, he avoids conflict; and as a father he simply falls short.

The film comes back to the telling of this anecdote more than once, allowing us to see the reactions of different characters.  Late in the film we finally see Eliezer’s wife’s face as she hears the story. Her face pinches in pain while she tries to retain the proud smile and works hard not to glance at Eliezer. Eliezer’s face shimmies briefly with a slight acknowledgement of guilt, but swiflty returns to its emotionless mask. Even Professor Grossman, whose work eclipsed Eliezer, grimaces with self-righteousness. None of these people shows or shares their emotions.

The main drama of the film occurs when Eliezer is accidentally told that he has won the Israel Prize, something he has coveted for nearly twenty years.  The award was, of course, intended for his son.  The committee wants to correct the problem; the son thinks knowing the truth could kill his father.

A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manusc...

A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo Genizah. From the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is evident in the first five minutes why Cedar is so well-considered. A graduate of the NYU film school, he mixes avant garde aesthetics (slide shows; third person narration interruptions to tell us “some things useful to know” about each man; choppy editing; and partial framing, for example) with a universally understood narrative approach. His camera insists that we be as awkward and uncomfortable as his characters. Framing a husband and wife in a very intimate two shot, but having them face away from each other or having complete silence take over, for instance, tells us all we need to know about the emotional difficulty of living with Eliezer. Watching his wife stand at her door and listen for him similarly shows us how much she really cares about him. The conflict between these men is uncomfortable and we are, at every level, implicated in it.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the relationship between Uriel and his son Josh. As driven as grandfather and father each are, Josh is directionless. He often appears wearing headsets, even when alone with his father. He seems to take a camping trip alone, heading into the desert with no clear plan. It is as if Uriel’s difficulties with his own father have left him no energy to be a father himself. Josh symbolizes a generation lost or forgotten as their parents argue over the direction the world should take, too focused on their own glory to recognize missed opportunity.

According to Jewish tradition, the Talmud consists of rabbinical commentary on the Torah. While Orthodox Jews believe that these interpretations of the Torah were given to Moses along along with the Five Books of Moses that comprise the Torah, these commentaries were written down only between the second and fifth centuries CE.  Thus, for thousands of years, Jews passed their history and laws orally. Rabbis and scholars debated, interpreted, and explained the laws to each generation. Some Jews believe that once codified, the interpretations were meant to remain unchanged. Others allow for the continued evolution of the faith and its practices.  Footnote is, in fact,narratively and cinematically structured like the written pages of the Talmud, with extra- and meta-textual interruptions to further explain what is happening and with some mysteries left unsolved. Nothing is as straightforward or easy as it seems and awarding the prize to the “correct” recipient becomes, in Uriel’s eyes, a “life or death” concern that causes him to rethink his relationship to truth, to fact, and to his father.

The title refers to the accomplishment of which Eliezer is most proud–his name in a footnote of book written by his mentor, a renowned Talmudic scholar.  He seems destined to remain a footnote in the history of Talmudic scholarship, in the life of his family, and in the academy. But, the film seems to ask, don’t we all?

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