This is Eliezer Shkolnik at work.
Meticulous and fastidious, Eliezer Shkolnik is a scholar of the highest order. But Eliezer Shkolnik is also a husband and a father, and the personal qualities that make him such an excellent scholar make him almost impossible to live with at home.
His son Uriel has long since escaped the nest to build his own life (a life which is an ironic mirror image of Eliezer's life). His wife Yehudit stays on, but they have structured their lives living side-by-side, two parallel lines that never meet.
And then a miracle: One morning, Eliezer is on his way to work, following the same route he always travels at the same exact time each day, when he is stopped in his tracks by a phone call from above. "Professor Shkolnik, you are the winner of the Israel Prize," says the voice on his cell, "Israel's highest honor!"
Suddenly this sad-sack, envious and embittered by years on the sidelines, is all aglow. He's the center of attention, and he loves it. Uriel is proud and happy to see his father honored with public recognition for his many years of diligent effort. Then Uriel gets a phone call, and… well… I refuse to be the one who spoils your fun.
Without saying too much about the plot (which is as marvelous as a Victorian wind-up toy), let me point to some details. First the clothes: Eliezer dresses like a sabra. Open-collar, no tie, Eliezer is the son of pioneers who arrived in the Yishuv in the late 30s. But Uriel, born Israeli, wears a knit kippah. Although many of the plot elements in Footnote are universal, tiny decisions like these reverberate, making Footnote very much a product of its own time and place.
Uriel is asked to attend a restricted meeting for invited guests only. When he arrives, the participants are arguing away in a tiny crowded room. Cinephiles like me are instantly transported back to the 30s, remembering the high comedy of the Marx Brothers cavorting in the stateroom of an ocean liner in A Night at the Opera. But this room is also a metaphor for Israel, bursting at the seams: "Two Jews; three opinions."
Searching my mind for more recent comparisons, I grab hold of Little Miss Sunshine. Before you tell me I'm mad, consider: both films are family dramedies about prizes—winning prizes versus losing prizes, and the high price to be paid whatever the outcome. (Is devoting yourself to Torah philology, day in and day out, any more arcane for most people than obsessing about Proust?)
Little Miss Sunshine is quintessentially American and Footnote is quintessentially Israeli, but there is a common sensibility: Michael Arndt (the Oscar winning screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine) and Joseph Cedar (the Oscar-nominated writer/director of Footnote) are roughly the same age and both attended NYU film school at roughly the same time. Do they know each other? Who knows? Have they seen each other's work? Who cares! If you laughed through your tears at Little Miss Sunshine (or fought back tears even while laughing your head off), you will do so again when you see Footnote.
After he attends the restricted meeting, Uriel is burdened by a secret which he is forbidden to divulge (and I have made the same pledge). But then the extended family goes to see Fiddler on the Roof, and watching Tevye the Patriarch prance and preen on stage brings Uriel close to apoplexy. So he learns over and shares the details with his mother.
Yehudit listens, saying nothing, but her eyes grow ever wider as she absorbs the full enormity of what has happened. Of course, Eliezer is oblivious, happily humming Tradition! all the way home in Uriel's cramped car. Truly, the Marx Brothers could not have crafted this scene any better. Laughing, I'm laughing so hard, but then what Yehudit does next brings on my tears yet again.
Footnote is Joe Cedar's fourth film. The first one, Time of Favor, won the Ophir Award for Best Film from the Israel Film Academy in 2000, and the second one, Campfire, won the Ophir Award for Best Film in 2004. The third one, Beaufort, did not win the Ophir Award for Best Film in 2007, but ended up receiving an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2008 anyway. (For more on this highly-relevant kerfuffle, read my blog.)
Add to the Ophir list Cedar's awards from Berlin, Cannes, and many other film festivals as well, and we have a man who clearly knows a whole lot about prizes. And oh yes, Cedar's father, world-famous biochemist Howard Cedar, won the Israel Prize in 1999.
In the end, Eliezer, using instincts honed by a lifetime in the archives, discovers the big secret for himself. Cedar films this in one of the most dazzling scenes I've ever seen on screen. (I'm married to someone with a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, so I know serious scholarship can have moments of genuine drama.) What is Eliezer to do with his new knowledge? The last thing we hear are the opening notes of Hatikvah! Hope! And then the credits roll.
Cedar has made audacious casting choices, asking heart-throb Lior Ashkenazi (star of Late Marriage and Walk on Water) to play against type as Uriel, and persuading stage actor Shlomo Bar-Aba to take the lead role of Eliezer. Aliza Rosen, an actress best-known for her television roles, is also excellent as Yehudit. Filled in with a large supporting cast, the alchemy is perfect.
With Footnote, Joseph Cedar has earned his place as an Oscar-nominated filmmaker—no ifs, ands, or buts!
Footnote (which is already playing in NYC) opens today (3/16/12) in Metro Chicago at the Cinemark in Evanston, the Landmark Century in Lincoln Park, and the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park. See it on a big screen! You'll be glad you did!
TZIVI's UPDATE: Last September I wrote about The Debt, director John Madden's 2010 English remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha Hov. In my review of The Debt, I said: "Have we reached the point, as Jews, where our debt to the past is now in conflict with our debt to the future? This is the question that drives the plot of The Debt…"
Although fellow film critics told me the two versions were identical, I resisted. I didn't remember much concern for the future in Ha Hov. Well Ha Hov was just released on DVD, so I was able to watch it again last week, and now I can tell you for sure that I was correct. Ha Hov is about the past; The Debt is about the future. Read more