Thursday, June 23, 2011

Footnote

In the last decade the Israeli film industry has experienced a dramatic renaissance.  More films are being made; more tickets are being sold; and, internationally, Israeli films have been acclaimed at prestigious festivals and in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.  I have to confess that I've let most of this new wave pass me by, mainly because so few of these films piqued my interest with their premise or subject matter.  Israeli filmmaking often seems to be cleanly divided between family dramas and examinations of the Arab-Israeli conflict in its many forms, to the extent that the recent film Rabies billed itself--quite correctly, from what I've gathered--as the first Israeli horror film.  What excited me about Footnote, Joseph Cedar's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Beaufort, when I first heard about it, was that it seemed like such a departure from this narrow range of subjects, and the film itself has more than lived up to that expectation.  Footnote is a film about the search for knowledge, about scholarship and academia, and about the politics of both.  I can't remember the last time I saw anything like it.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are, respectively, father and son Talmud scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a philologist who spent thirty years gathering evidence for the existence of alternate text of the Jerusalem Talmud, only to be simultaneously proven right and scooped when a copy of this theorized text was discovered and publicized by one of his rivals.  Since then he has spent his time in solitary study, cut off from even the small world of Talmud scholarship and publishing nothing.  His greatest achievement is having been mentioned in a footnote to one of the canonical reference texts in his field.  Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a rising star--quick to publish, politically savvy, and eager to address the general public through books and lectures.  As the film opens Eliezer is seething over the fact that Uriel has been invited to join the Israeli Academy for Sciences, a body to which he himself was never invited.  His long exile seems to be over, however, when he's informed that he's been awarded the Israel Prize--given out every year for outstanding achievements in arts, sciences, and culture (Cedar's own father, Professor Chaim Cedar, is himself a recipient of the Israel Prize for biochemistry)--for which he has been nominated, and passed over, for sixteen years.  The next day, Uriel is summoned to the Ministry of Education to learn the awful truth--the call to Eliezer was made by mistake, and he, Uriel, is the real winner.

In a tense, meticulously directed scene that is one of the film's highlights, Uriel argues with Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), the chair of the prize committee and the man who scooped Eliezer all those years ago, over the issues that are at the heart of the film.  Should the Israel Prize go to Eliezer simply to spare his pride and hurt feelings, or is this a betrayal of the award's integrity?  Are Eliezer's erudition and keen insight into his subject reason enough to reward him, or is the salient point the fact that he hasn't made any meaningful contributions to his field?  Is Grossman maliciously persecuting Eliezer out of envy and curdled guilt, as Uriel insists, or is he making a stand for intellectual rigor?  And what of his dark hints that there are skeletons in Eliezer's closet that Uriel knows nothing about?  As Uriel struggles with these questions, Eliezer takes advantage of his newfound fame to lob his own grenade into the fray.  In an interview with Ha'aretz he declares that the only worthy scholarship is his kind--painstaking, thorough, and focused exclusively on the text--while the kind that publishes every half-formed thought and uses the text as a jumping-off point for discussions of social and historical issues is dismissed by him as "folklorism"--or worse, populism.  This, of course, is precisely the kind of scholarship that Uriel engages in, and he views the interview, correctly, as a personal attack.  The question raised by Uriel's dilemma and Eliezer's behavior is: which is more important, truth or love?  Uriel chooses the latter, telling himself that he's giving his father the Israel Prize out of love, but Grossman admonishes him that for all his flaws, Eliezer is not the man who would sanctify a mistake for convenience's sake, and as the film draws on its suggests that it's not love driving Uriel but fear of confrontation, the same fear that keeps him from investigating Grossman's allegations against Eliezer.  Can a man who is afraid of the truth ever be a worthy scholar?  And on the other hand, is pure scholarship for the truth's sake worthwhile if it's disconnected from all other disciplines, and shared with nobody?

Footnote is written, acted, and directed as a comedy, and at points it is very funny.  But what the comedic tone conceals is that this is a very dark story.  Bit by bit, Eliezer and Uriel damn each other and themselves.  Uriel realizes that the emotion that has been poisoning his relationship with Uriel isn't jealousy but contempt, and that he may deserve it.  Eliezer, by accepting accolades he knows weren't meant for him, loses his soul.  In this sense, the film reminds me of Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, another literate, multilayered comedy that is ultimately about damnation.  In Bruges, however, is told from within a Christian framework, so its concept of damnation is tied up in the idea of an afterlife.  Footnote is, fundamentally, a Jewish movie, so the hell that Eliezer and Uriel trap each other in is corporeal and mundane, and the crime for which they're consigned to it equally mundane--their desire for recognition and acceptance.  Neither Eliezer's alleged purity of purpose, nor Uriel's success, are enough to inoculate them against this thirst for accolades, and the film leaves us wondering just how, or whether, a scholar can balance their integrity with this desire.  (In a sort of unintended corollary to the film, Cedar played out the artistic counterpart of this struggle when he transformed an interview with Ha'aretz's film reviewer Uri Klein into an ambush in which he attacked Klein for his--to my mind, entirely wrongheaded--negative review of the film.)

You'd think that with all this weight of thematic material, with such an emphasis on the life of the mind, as well as a very talky script, there would be little attention paid in Footnote to the technical aspects of filmmaking.  But Footnote is a striking piece of cinema, with several beautifully composed shots (most notably the opening scene in which Uriel gives a speech upon his acceptance into the Israeli Academy of Sciences entirely offscreen, while the camera slowly moves in on Eliezer's stony expression) and a strong sense of the film's setting of Jerusalem and its landmarks.  There are points where Cedar's visual sensibility borders on over-stylized.  He piles long shots over misdirected cameras over split screens over on-screen text, and around the middle of the film this all seems like a bit much.  Similarly, the insistent, dramatic soundtrack by Amit Poznansky (which many reviewers have compared to Bernard Hermann's work on Hitchcock's films) occasionally overstays its welcome.  But as the story draws to its climax, these devices seem more and like tools being used--quite expertly--in furtherance of a cause, rather than an end in their own right, and Footnote is ultimately as engaging visually as it is intellectually.

If I have one caveat about Footnote, it is that I'm not sure how much non-Israelis, and particularly non-Hebrew speakers, will get out of it.  Footnote is rooted in Israeli concepts and institutions, such as the Israel Prize, whose prestige presumably doesn't cross borders.  When we're introduced to Uriel, for example, we're told that on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot he gives six lectures in a single night.  This refers to the fact that the religious custom of studying through the night on Shavuot has been transmuted into a secular event, with many cultural centers holding all-night sessions to which prominent lecturers are invited.  To Israelis, the fact that Uriel is so busy on Shavuot marks him out as a populist, a glory hog, and probably a bit in love with the sound of his own voice, but viewers unfamiliar with the custom might be lost.  In fact, some of Footnote's terms are so niche-driven that even I wasn't entirely clear on all the nuances of the film's milieu--I've seen comments by academics in the field of Jewish studies who have noted details in the film's portrayal of that field that went entirely over my head.

Even more important is the matter of language.  Footnote is in many ways a film about language, the subject of Eliezer's studies, and, fittingly for a story about people whose lives are devoted to the study of manuscripts, that preoccupation is expressed less through speech (though the film's dialogue is well-crafted, and I wonder whether translation will do it justice) than it is through text.  One of the film's most crucial scenes intercuts Eliezer's damning Ha'aretz interview with Uriel writing the judges' notes for Eliezer's award, a task delegated to him by the disgusted Grossman.  As the reporter writes down Eliezer's harsh words, the camera lingers on each stroke of the pen as if they were slashes of a knife.  At the same time, Uriel copies the judges' notes for his award and tailors them to suit his father.  It's an act of invention that simultaneously validates Eliezer's judgment of Uriel as lightweight who cobbles disparate facts together into a pleasing but inaccurate whole, and proves both to us and to Uriel that Eliezer doesn't deserve the award, the camera focusing tightly over each typed word on the computer screen as Uriel considers it, deletes it, and replaces it with fainter praise.  Later in the film, Uriel's trickery is unmasked through textual analysis, and the final twist of the knife is delivered through a play on words.  All of this text flies so quickly across the screen that it's hard to imagine how a non-Hebrew speaker, even aided by subtitles, will be able to make anything of it.  More than this, it's hard to imagine that someone who doesn't have a Hebrew reader's connection to the language will feel the visceral importance that it has in the film.

But what do I know?  The Cannes jury recently awarded Footnote the festival's best screenplay award, and it has received some enthusiastic reviews from foreign critics.  My hat is off to all of them for their ability to surmount the barriers of language and culture, and I'm hopeful that this ability presages wider acceptance.  It's gratifying to see a film about so esoteric and so quintessentially Jewish and Israeli a topic gaining wide acceptance overseas--as pleased as I've been for the Israeli directors whose films have gained international acclaim in recent years, the ubiquity of the Arab-Israeli conflict within those films has made it impossible not to wonder whether the international community doesn't have a very narrow concept of what Israeli films should be about, and it's nice to see a work that lies outside that narrow band and recognizes that Israel neither begins nor ends with the conflict gaining recognition.  The truth, however, is that films like Footnote are uncommon not just in Israeli cinema, but in cinema in general, which rarely pays any attention to erudition, study, and scholarly disputes--and more's the pity, as far as I'm concerned.  I'm very proud that one of the few films to buck that trend has come from Israel, and despite my concerns about its accessibility to foreigners, I hope that many of you get the chance to see it.

7 comments:

Steve Ballmer said...

Interesting blog you got here my friend!

Are you a Zunist?

Shoteh said...

Thank you for an interesting blog post! Looking forward to seeing the movie now!

Anonymous said...

Hello Abigail,

Greyfoot again. Just wondering what you think about Philip Roth's recent statement concerning modern fiction: http://www.salon.com/books/readers_and_reading/?story=/books/laura_miller/2011/06/28/stopped_reading_fiction .

A few years ago, Roth also said that in 25 years most people won't be reading novels http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7mjsNLNzbc&feature=related . Many people flippantly say that's been the case for awhile already, but Roth is dead serious.

Just curious about your reaction.

Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

greyfoot

Standback said...

Just saw the film; it was marvelous, and kudos to you for the critique. It's refreshing to see local Jewish and religious culture handled with such depth and power.

One observation I had was that the movie had a strong current of trivializing the actual achievements at stake, in contrast with its furiously intense personal focus. "It's just a prize," says Uriel; "I don't think anybody read the article," says Eliezer's wife; even Eliezer being ostracized and miserable is attributed to Grossman's reaction to a single inconsequential footnote. I was fascinated.

Alexander said...

It looks like this will finally be coming out in Wisconsin soon, based on your review I'm looking forward to it.

Alexander said...

"Soon" wasn't quite as soon as I'd anticipated, but it's now available here, and I've seen it. An excellent movie, both as a character study and an exploration of scholastic politics. A lot of the technical details on this type of scholarship were beyond me, but the central argument between Eliezer and Uriel in "scientific" versus "folklore" approaches translated, or at least translated enough to make dramatic sense. And beyond that the divisions of personality and ego worked very well. As your review explores, the film has a lot of ambivalence to it, in terms of who was more justified, the stakes of the issues involve. The dynamic of Uriel's relationship with his son was an interesting component of that.

In particular I thought the scene where Uriel pierces together the deception using his own thorough scholastic approach, while it simultaneously revisted the phone call and the opening lecture from different angles and drew fresh attention to the philogist/teacher schism was a masterpiece. Very interesting to reflect on.

Anonymous said...

Do you remember which 6 places Uriel spoke at on Shavuot? It's been driving me nuts ever since I couldn't read the screen fast enough. Beit Avi Chai, Shira Hadasha, Yakar, and... ?

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