What is it to love your enemy? That's not a question I hear very often at the movies. That's a question I hear at church. It's been said that the two, movie going and church going, aren't as different as some may assume - but this is an area where they tend to divide. Of course in Israel, the home country of the film FOOTNOTE, they're not known for doing "church" the way I'm accustomed to doing it here in America. They are, however, obviously doing film in a familiar manner, even as the country's rich tradition and culture rightfully permeates so much of it. FOOTNOTE, a recent nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, boldly asks the transcending question: What is it to love your enemy, especially when that enemy is your own father?
Do not be misled, there's nothing outwardly religious about FOOTNOTE. A touch over-directed by filmmaker Joseph Cedar, this is, perhaps, the most Scorsese-esque academic rivalry between esteemed father and son professors ever committed to celluloid. Amid stylish slam-cuts, graphics, and a Bernard Herrmann-esque score, the exposition bursts: Eliezer Shkolnik, the father (Shlomo Bar-Aba), is a crusty old buzzard that was never the world's greatest dad. Upon getting sniped by a rival weeks before the findings of his life's work were to be published, and subsequently seeing his would-be glorious career reduced to a footnote in another man's lesser work, he opts to take out his frustrations on his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi). As far as professors in Talmudic Studies go, Uriel is a pretty popular personality, a rising star in the field he shares with his not so dear old dad. Eliezer, unable to celebrate his son's career, has long ago taken a scunner to him and the world, cutting him down at every turn. But when the most prestigious award their field has to offer pits them against one another in an unexpected way, Uriel must painfully choose between self-sacrifice and the height of glory.
After the screening of FOOTNOTE, a fellow critic and I were discussing the curiously overcooked sensory nature of the film (the slam-cuts and all). He speculated that the writer/director may've lacked confidence in his dramatic story, and was compensating elsewhere. Not seeing it that way, I put forth that Cedar's visual and sonic flourishes felt like a runaway post-PULP FICTION "anything goes" attitude about movie making. (Itself not always a bad thing.) I stand by that observation, although my associate's take on it is not inconceivable. In any case, the film is not sloppy or fundamentally unconfident. Cedar manages some excellent performances from his skilled cast, each convincingly world-weary and appropriately vulnerable. Though off-puttingly stylized and even a little quirky here and there, the drama never suffers for it. By the end of FOOTNOTE, I was completely absorbed in the rarely depicted conundrum playing out on screen.
Although it's not perfect, I'm a big fan of FOOTNOTE. It deserved that nomination at this year's Oscars, although I'm not surprised it didn't win. I've deliberately written around the specifics of the film's central drama as not to spoil it, but I will say that it involves grappling bluntly with a certain kind of outright selflessness that is at once a central part of our very beings and yet fundamentally extremely difficult. It's intriguing and a little sad that Film, such a human medium, so rarely goes to this place - the idea of possibly casting one's (fill in the blank: pride, reputation, social standing, job, future, stability, etc.) aside in the thankless interest of another. Yet that's what FOOTNOTE deals with, and that's what makes it so special. Add to that the fact that it's also engaging, entertaining, touching, interesting, and even kind of funny, and you've got a film that won't remain a footnote for long.
- Jim Tudor
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