Sunday, 15 May 2011

Cannes Day 3: Footnote

Eliezer Shkolnik spends 30 years of his life dedicated to studying Talmudic texts, only to have his glory stolen days before he publishes his earth-shattering findings.

Such is the scene in Joseph Cedar's Competition film, Footnote.

To make matters worse, Shkolnik has been considered for the Israel Prize for more than 20 years, with no such luck.

That's likely because Professor Grossman, thunder-stealer of Shkolnik's research opus, won the Israel prize instead of Shkolnik the same year as the injustice, and he's been on the jury ever since. Seeing as how Grossman is Shkolnik's academic arch-nemesis, there was no way Eliezer stood a chance.

This is where things get messy.

The film opens up on the lauding of Shkolnik's son, Uriel, who also happens to be a Talmudic scholar and revered professor (What are the odds?) Regardless, Uriel's career has been infinitely more successful than his father's, and that's clear from the moment the film begins. Rather than smile and cheer for his son at an awards ceremony, he sits in quiet grimace as he feels outdone and disrespected.

But then news comes out that Eliezer has won the Israel prize, ending a two-decade long inner grudge. The letter is addressed to a Professor Shkolnik - but which one is the Israel committee referring to?The heat is back on, and the father-son rivalry picks up.

Footnote is one of those movies that will make a lot more sense if you see it a second time. Easy enough to follow, certainly, but the anti-climactic ending deserves to be explained through further analysis and a repeat viewing. The acting is top-notch here, but perhaps not so much the comedy. Perhaps the Hebrew humour simply didn't translate into English the way the film intended, but nonetheless, there are some laffs to be had.

Cedar rightly gives both Uriel and Eliezer equal screen time to help us decide who we actually want the prize to go to. In that sense, Footnote is quite dividing. An insightful line appears midway through: "The only two people you can't be jealous of are your son, and your pupil."

Maybe not the latter, methinks. There are justified (and legal) reasons why Uriel should receive the coveted award, but do those stack up to ruining his relationship with his father? I've never really thought about the possibility of something like that happening, but the implications sound both relentless and overarching throughout the entire Shkolnik family. As such, the movie manages to take an extremely unexciting topic (Talmudic texts) and turn it into a game of grudges.

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