The abiding air of condescension surrounding Footnote, Israeli writer/director Joseph Cedar's award-winning comedy about a petty feud between father-and-son Talmudic scholars, is palpable from the film's first scene. Prof. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), filmed in extreme close-up, listens petulantly as his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) delivers an acceptance speech for one of numerous accolades lavished on Uriel by his peers. Eliezer's downcast face forces us to immediately wonder: Why does the not-so-proud father look like he's donating blood?
As the director of Beaufort tells it, Eliezer is small-minded and jealous of his son's accomplishments, a point that sets the stage for Footnote's own small-minded comedy of academic errors. It's the kind of bratty melodrama whose pretense of maturity is totally destroyed by its gleefully zany, Looney Tunes-style score and Cedar's serial abuse of close-ups. There's nothing particularly intelligent or funny about watching Cedar first take potshots at his flawed characters, then insist that they're actually sympathetic — only to go right back to mocking them for their insurmountable shortcomings.
Tensions flare between father and son over the Israeli Prize, the honor Eliezer covets. He has been considered but passed over for this award 16 times now; he's like the Randy Newman of Talmudic scholarship. Until the day Eliezer gets a call from an Israeli Prize representative, who tells him that he's this year's award recipient. Overjoyed in his own reserved way, Eliezer flips out. Unfortunately, it soon comes to light that the awards committee has made a mortifying mistake: It actually meant to give the honor to Uriel.
Cedar's representation of his characters is inherently patronizing. He assumes that because his characters' world is hermetically sealed that their passions are trivial. He does not engage with the content of Eliezer's or Uriel's work or their dedication to it, beyond noting how much effort and egotism go into their research. Theirs is a contest of egos, and that's supposed to be inherently silly.
But it's not. While it is funny to see poor Eliezer look mournfully at a shrine to a dead scholar that was "murdered on this spot on his way to the National Library," his struggle is not necessarily ridiculous. Nor is his reaction automatically absurd. Admittedly, Cedar takes great pains to show that Eliezer's and Uriel's over-inflated sense of self-worth is a direct product of the preening and self-important academic institutions they represent. But why all the contemptuous bombast? The film's visual aesthetic alone connotes a kind of mockingly myopic attention to facial expression that suggests that Cedar understands, on some superficial level, his characters' perspective.
And yet Eliezer is the kind of character whose most commonly used phrase is, "That's a good idea ... a very good idea ... but it's wrong." And Uriel isn't much better, paraphrasing his father when he says, "There are a lot of true things in your work, and a lot of new things. The problem is that the new things are not true and the true things are not new." Cedar gives both Uriel and Eliezer human characteristics that secondarily flesh them out as believably human characters. But none of those singular traits are as prominent as the churlishly broad strokes with which Footnote paints them.
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