To be a full-fledged professional academic, a scholar has to commit to a soul-crushing attachment to the most bureaucratic of minutia. It’s a gig for the deeply committed, those in whom boredom finds no quarter. Joseph Cedar’s Footnote weds lifelong, Sisyphean study to the relentless and circular nature of aging families.
In Jerusalem, a father and son have each abandoned themselves to academic life, studying and comparing the microscopic differences between editions of the Talmud. Their approaches differ: the father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), is rigorous and gradual, working for decades on a single project; the son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), prefers the more entertaining aspects of scholarship and becomes a celebrated public figure. Eliezer has been scorned by the academic establishment — he is dogmatic, a curmudgeon paralyzed and thwarted by his own project for 50 years — and has long given up hope of receiving the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest recognition for work in Jewish studies. His son, on the other hand, is celebrated; the film begins with Uriel accepting another prestigious award and telling a flimsy, crowd-pleasing story about his father.
Footnote becomes foremost an indirect conversation about the tensions between father and son. Eliezer disapproves of his son; Uriel wishes his dad would swallow his pride and accept some recognition. Their world is upended when Eliezer receives a phone call informing him that he has been awarded the Israel Prize. The call is especially shocking because Eliezer has not had a significant scholastic achievement in years — his last great project was undone by a rival scholar’s discovery on the eve of Eliezer’s publication. This same scholar, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn) is in fact the deciding vote on the committee for the Israel Prize and has a lifelong interest in arbitrarily thwarting Eliezer’s success. One of Footnote’s charms is its unwillingness to get to the source of Grossman’s rivalry with Eliezer; the inexplicability of Grossman’s cruelty underscores the film’s overarching focus on scholasticism as an interminable, thankless project with no honest finish line. Eliezer studies the Talmud because that is his project; no more complicated motivation is required or given. He will conduct classes to an empty room if no one signs up, because that is the task assigned to him. Eliezer is forever before the law, begging admittance, with Grossman as the doorkeeper.
The news of the prize changes everything. Eliezer, hitherto at least a little charming in his grumpiness, becomes a snide, critical egomaniac, at one point even ripping on Uriel in high-profile interview. Uriel, in the meantime, has been called to speak to Grossman et al., but the phone call went to the wrong Shkolnik — the prize was to be Uriel’s, and the phone call made it to Eliezer via the kind of unfixable and ambiguous administrative errors on which Kafka built a legacy. Cedar is a little clunky in his storytelling, asking far-fetched errors and geriatric stubbornness to prop up his more interesting plot points. The film’s back half switches the focus more to Uriel, who must choose to either reveal the prize committee’s error or elect to never let himself be awarded the prize. Ashkenazi is a fun actor to watch, and his character is tasked with the film’s hardest sells. Recognition is all academics can aspire to, and Uriel must elect to forfeit his field’s greatest acknowledgement.
Footnote ultimately disappoints because it undermines its own stakes. Cedar elects for corny backpedaling, flashbacks framed in sepia tint, and bad animations in order to reveal the futility of Uriel’s relationship to his father. Academia is hard enough to regard without cynicism, but Cedar treats his characters’ scholastic projects as punchlines, turning Eliezer’s lifelong struggle into a shell game. Cedar’s hokey embellishments seem to declare that the characters’ small-mindedness isn’t worth the kind of attention he’s asking us to give them. That Eliezer may or may not have discovered the truth about the Israel Prize ultimately does not matter. He was doomed the minute he picked up a book.