"Footnote" starts coy and a little reserved. In its opening scenes, the American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar leads us to believe we're signing on for one of those tender, slightly offbeat, nuanced character studies of a lonely and misunderstood old man leading a life of quiet desperation. What would it be like to devote a lifetime to a narrow academic obsession and then watch your own son, pompous and superficial, surpass you in the very same field of study?
As you settle in, the very pulse of the film seems destined to stay within resting-heart-rate range.
And then, "Footnote," cruising along at a relaxed speed, hits the dramatic equivalent of a car bomb.
I'm not going to reveal the central conflict of this riveting Israeli film, which plays today only as a Fresno Filmworks presentation at the Tower Theatre. I can tell you that it's simple, clever and, aside from the family involved, not anything to change the world. But at the micro level, from the distorted perspective of father and son squaring off nose to nose, the conflict is devastating.
And as a viewer, as you latch on, it's fascinating how easy you get caught up in the drama of it all.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba in a potent performance laced with melancholy and more than a hint of poison) is the father. He's toiled for decades in the highly competitive field of Talmudic studies -- and isn't exactly revered by his colleagues in academia.
Meanwhile, his son, Uriel (a charismatic Lior Ashkenazi), has attracted the acclaim and acceptance that his bitter, weary father never did. Even his father's most bitter academic enemy acknowledges the son's impressive scholarship.
No one is more surprised than Eliezer, then, when he learns he's been chosen to win the prestigious Israel Prize, thus setting in motion a surprising chain of events. With an approach that bounces between jaunty and deadly serious, Cedar digs right to the roots of a deeply hurting family.
At a fundamental level, "Footnote" is about fathers and sons -- and the dark and twisted permutations of that fundamental relationship. (A jealous father seems to be accorded special disdain in the social order -- dads should be happy for their sons, right?)
But Cedar also finds the time to unleash his scathing eye on the viciousness of academia. If you think office politics on the departmental level at your local university are cutthroat, they're likely just a preschool tussle compared to the full-fledged combat zone of Talmudic studies. There's a chilling scene of a committee meeting in a too-small room -- the participants wedged uncomfortably into the space as if it's a form of incarceration -- that unfolds with such compelling nastiness that I don't think I even blinked. A resting heart rate? Hardly. My pulse was pounding.
"Footnote," rated PG. Stars Shlomo Bar-Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Micah Lewensohn. Directed by Joseph Cedar. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8 p.m. Friday. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: A
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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