It’s said that academia is a famously back-stabbing place owing to its small-potatoes stakes. “Footnote” sets out to reveal the navel-gazing elements behind the pursuit of arcane knowledge while laying bare the storms it creates when ego and father-son rivalry play their parts. Scripter-helmer Joseph Cedar shifts sympathies back and forth as frequently as he changes tone from jokey to bitter, skewering ivory tower blindness with some wit and, just occasionally, emotion. A tendency to overbake may distance some, as could the immersion in obscure corners of Judaica scholarship, though Sony Classics’ early Cannes pickup shows noteworthy confidence.
Target auds will undoubtedly be Jewish viewers and college towns, a not insignificant demographic, yet “Footnote” is unlikely to find the same kind of heavy fest play as Cedar’s Silver Bear winner “Beaufort.” Academic researchers rarely make for dynamic screen material (unless there’s sexual hanky-panky involved), so Cedar goes to great lengths — indeed, too great — to turn editing and music into the driving force behind the pic’s liveliness.
Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) worked for decades in semi-obscurity comparing corrupted manuscripts of the Jewish texts collectively known as the Talmud, with the near-impossible goal of preparing a version as close to the original ancient writings as possible. While Eliezer devotes himself to the minutiae, burying himself in the library or his study and barely publishing, his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) produces book after book on broad Talmudic culture. Father looks with disdain on his son’s intellectual pursuits as much as on Uriel’s constant need for the limelight.
In many ways Uriel is a more human companion to Michael Sheen’s pedant in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”: he loves to lecture, he soaks up the adoration of students and colleagues alike, and he needs to be right, at all times. While Eliezer toils away with little recognition apart from a lone footnote in a multi-tome work, Uriel has honors heaped upon him, which he accepts with a faux-humility calculated to set his father’s teeth on edge.
The script nails academic gobbledygook along with the viciousness of professorial rivalries, nicely realized not only via the father-son conflict but between Eliezer and peer Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn, pitch-perfect), the latter a self-righteous, two-faced SOB who saw his career flourish by deliberately sidelining Eliezer. The pic’s best scene occurs in a tiny office into which Uriel is called after Eliezer gets news that he’s receiving Israel’s most prestigious award, the Israel prize. The awards committee is chaired by Grossman, and Cedar’s aim is unerring as he targets the insularity of the academic world along with the secret pacts and betrayals regularly concocted to keep rivals down. Tellingly, the scene is also one of the very few not propelled by music.
The sequence comes after a key though not unexpected plot twist, whose reveal occurs around the 40-minute mark. Uriel’s subsequent behavior shifts his character from merely a pompous egoist to more of what wife Dikla (Alma Zak) calls him — a nice guy who avoids confrontation. Viewers feel a surge of satisfaction when he finally does go on the attack, for the right reasons, which makes the character a far more rounded figure than originally presented.
With all his flaws, at least Uriel moves forward, unlike his father, whose recondite pursuit of an elusive ur-text is ultimately presented as blind intellectual masturbation no more useful than Mr. Casaubon’s unachieved “great work” in “Middlemarch.” Cedar’s impatience with Eliezer’s pursuits are crystallized in a well-written speech he puts in the mouth of the old scholar, in which the cataloguing of potsherds as opposed to the study of the vessel itself is proven to be all means and no end.
Despite the presence of Dikla, along with Eliezer’s wife Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), “Footnote” is a decidedly male-centric film. Structurally, the pic is divided into named chapters that make for cute markers but give it the not-entirely satisfying feel of a jaunty satire. Bouncy editing is intimately tied to Amit Poznansky’s score, the latter sounding like Stravinsky at his most playful and competing far too much with characters and themes. As in Cedar’s past films, corridors and doors play a key role, with Yaron Scharf’s tight lensing subtly responding to the notion of dividers and passageways.