A terrific deadpan chronicle of father and son Talmudic scholars beset by an escalating bureaucratic screw-up, Joseph Cedar's" Footnote" sets the tone for the battles to come in its opening sequence.
The son, a well-liked backslapper by the name of Uriel Shkolnik, has been accepted into the Israeli Academy of Sciences. Before taking the stage at the ceremony, Uriel sits in the audience next to his scowling father, Eliezer, whose crowning achievement is having been footnoted, once, in his mentor's book on Talmudic studies.
Inches apart, they could be on different continents. Cedar keeps the camera on the father while the son is heard at the microphone, thanking the academy, paying tribute (how sincerely, we can't tell) to his father's stringent research standards. Slowly the camera noses in very close to Eliezer — the one not being recognized, the scholar all too familiar with being passed over. He seethes, practically audibly. Or is he always like this?
Alone and slightly panicky in the post-ceremony reception, Eliezer heads outside to be alone for a while. Then he can't get back in: He isn't wearing the wristband required for entry into an official state building. Life for this man in this country consists of high security, yet perpetual insecurity. "I like that the film may be considered a comedy," Cedar told one interviewer, "because it tells the audience that they can feel comfortable to laugh and smile and not necessarily take everything too seriously. But if we want to be formalists, strictly speaking, I think this story qualifies as a tragedy, as most father-son stories do."
"Footnote" relishes the universe these men, and others, have made for themselves. The elder Shkolnik has long dreamed of winning the Israel Prize for his pursuits. One day, the call comes. Then his son receives a related call, explaining the meaning behind the call to his father. I suppose it's a spoiler to give any more away (though some of the film's trailers aren't coy about the plot twist). The main thing with Cedar's film, I think, is to approach it not as a farce, not as a drama, not as a mystery, not as any genre in particular. It's a comic nightmare, in the vein of the Coen brothers'"A Serious Man," and Cedar proves masterly at playing the stakes for real.
The key sequence in "Footnote," and the most amusing, takes place in the world's smallest conference room (more of a broom closet with a table and chairs). This is where the major players of the Talmud department of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including a marvelous, scrunchy-browed menace played by Micah Lewensohn, inform Uriel of a certain life-changing mistake that has been made. It's my favorite single scene of the year so far.
Cedar's previous film, "Beaufort" (2007), portrayed the dynamics among Israeli Defense Forces soldiers stationed in Southern Lebanon prior to the Israeli withdrawal of 2000. While far more grave in narrative fact, that picture has a lot in common with "Footnote" and its gallows humor, faculty-rivalry division. Cedar's script, which won the writing prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, periodically stops to footnote and illustrate a point or a detour or a nagging doubt experienced by one of the characters. Shot in widescreen, the faces take on epic weight.
The central performances couldn't be better. As the elder Shkolnik, Shlomo Bar Aba remains largely mute throughout "Footnote," and while the role is more foil than fully dimensional human being, it's certainly the most effective silent-film acting since Jean Dujardin in "The Artist." As his son, Lior Ashkenazi is an inspired, big-hearted, bearlike presence, a man whose family life (Alma Zak plays his cleareyed, increasingly aghast wife) threatens to dissolve as he tussles with the biggest ethical dilemma of his life.
I wish the musical score, by Amit Poznansky, were a little less bombastic. I don't think Cedar quite figured out how to shape the final 15 minutes or so; they're less grounded in realism (which is fine) but indistinct as drama or comedy. Many people will be vexed by "Footnote" and its poker-faced strategy long before the climax. The humor isn't for everyone. I've seen the film twice, gladly, and I can't wait to see what Cedar comes up with next.
'Footnote' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief nudity, language and smoking)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2424 N. Clark St., and the Landmark Renaissance Place, Highland Park. In Hebrew with English subtitles.