‘Footnote’ a pitch-perfect dual character study

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Written by Joseph Cedar
Directed by Joseph Cedar
Israel, 2011

A tale of two Shkolniks, Joseph Cedar’s perfectly paced and wryly observed dramatic comedy follows father and son professors locked in a bitter rivalry. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), the son, is well on the path to greatness. A newly inducted member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, renowned lecturer, and physically imposing figure, he’s the polar opposite of his father. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is taciturn, socially awkward, and consistently shunned for public recognition…until he receives word that he’s finally – after 20 years of rejection – been awarded a prestigious Israel Prize. The announcement brings plenty of past resentments to light.

Featuring dazzling montages that make great use of slide projectors, newspaper typography, photographs, and any other type of archival material imaginable, Footnote is very much about cataloging. Where both men have devoted their lives to some sort of historicism, teaching, philology – ‘Talmudic research,’ as Uriel puts it – director Cedar is also interested in cataloging their disparate histories.

Uriel, fascinated by his father, follows in his footsteps, but soon overtakes him in prestige. The son sees his father’s work – a lifelong endeavor on one single thesis – as belabored and paltry. The father sees his son’s work as flippant and blind to true research.

The footnote in the film is literal. Eliezer’s greatest achievement is having been listed as a footnote in his own professor and mentor’s influential book. Of course the idea of the footnote extends metaphorically beyond the simple text: father and son have so diverged as to be mere footnotes in one-another’s lives.

And what to make of the women in Footnote? Eliezer’s wife, Yehudit (Aliza Rosen) sleepwalks through the film. She overhears her husband give a particularly vitriolic interview but pretends not to. Uriel lets her in on a potentially devastating secret, but she does nothing with it. Uriel’s wife Dikla (Alma Zack) has more of a voice than her mother-in-law, but is still relegated to the fringe of the narrative. “Your only job in this house is mother, and you dump that on me,” Uriel tells her.

Neither woman influences the plot in any meaningful way, though both are featured visually in key moments: Yehudit is one of the first faces on-screen and Dikla is one of the last, when Uriel takes her hand in a gesture of solidarity. Rather than a misogynistic reading, the women have simply been forced to the background. They, particularly Yehudit, suffer in silence, footnotes in their respective husband’s lives.

Neal Dhand

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