This is some Old Testament shit right here.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp, but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s a comedy like the British version of “The Office” was a comedy. Laugh-out loud moments are rare because we’re often struck dumb with embarrassment and anguish.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not, and, as the movie begins, the father is a reluctant audience member at another ceremony in which his son receives another honor, and gives another speech honoring his father. He talks about how, in third grade, asked for his father’s occupation on a school form, he wanted to write “professor,” since that’s what he was, but his father insisted upon the plainer and—to him—more meaningful word “teacher.” When the speech is over, everyone stands and applauds. The last to stand and applaud, and the first to stop and sit, is Eliezer, who is lost in his own bitter world. Later, in bed with his wife, the son reveals that that childhood moment wasn’t so lighthearted. His father forced him to write “teacher” by grabbing his hand hard. His hand hurt for days.
Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins.
This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. He sits back on a nearby rock, stunned. We wonder what he’ll do. Whoop it up? No. He continues on his silent way; but at the library, bursting, he can’t do research, and instead he and an elegant older woman head outside. From a distance, we, and eventually his son, see them talking. He says more to her than he does to his family.
But there’s a wrinkle. The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
When Uriel discovers this, and, worse, discovers that the committee, with Prof. Grossman as its chair, wants him to tell Eliezer of the mistake, he’s distraught. He declines, then thinks about it, then declines, then thinks about it, then flatly refuses. “It will kill him,” he says. “It will bury our relationship.” He wants the committee to honor his father, as it should have done years earlier. He voices his father’s bitter complaints. Does Grossman hold a grudge against Eliezer? Uriel accuses him, shoves are exchanged, and Grossman, the distinguished, elderly professor, whose forehead has the deep folds of a shar pei, winds up on the floor with a bloody nose. In the end, Grossman acquiesces. On two conditions: Uriel must write the judges’ considerations; and Uriel must never again submit for the Israel Prize. The highest honor will thus be denied him forever.
Each section of the movie is given a chapter title—“The most difficult day in the life of Prof. Shkolnik” is the first, for example—and the next chapter is titled “The revenge of Prof. Shkolnik.” And who is this revenge against? His son.
You know that great juxtaposition scene in “The Godfather” when Michael becomes godfather at his nephew’s baptism as he become mafia godfather by taking out his enemies? The dual baptisms scene? It now has a rival. Writer-director Joseph Cedar cuts between the younger Prof. Shkolnik praising his father’s work in the faux judges’ considerations while the elder Prof. Shkolnik trashes his son’s work as unscholarly and unscientific to a visiting journalist (Yuval Scharf). As his son creates a triumphant fiction out of his father’s tattered career, the father trashes the son’s scholarship as fiction. It’s brutal stuff.
So what now? To save his father, Uriel has sacrificed some part of his reputation, which his father, triumphant, has now trashed from the high perch on which his son placed him. He can’t lash back. That would defeat the whole purpose. He can’t go back, either. Grossman’s in the way.
Both men live with long-suffering women. Earlier in the movie, Uriel’s wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), informs her husband , during one of his many complaints about his father, that Eliezer is at least true to himself and says what he means, while he tends to avoid confrontation. He’s certainly done that with the Israel Prize. Eliezer’s wife, meanwhile, hardly says a word. She merely exudes the pain of living with a silent, bitter man for nearly half a century.
So what now? Two things happen. At a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Uriel tells the truth about the Israel Prize, in a whisper, to his mother, and we immediately hate him for it. It’s a small, cowardly act—yet wholly understandable. If the universe won’t know the good he’s done, at least his mother will. But why burden her with this knowledge? Isn’t she burdened enough? Does he hope she will tell the father, who will recant his public criticisms of the son?
Moot point: Eliezer figures it out himself. He shows us what a true scholar he is by realizing the word “fortress” in the judges’ considerations is a word Grossman never uses but his son overuses. His research confirms this. He flashes back to the phone call, and how he was supposed to receive the formal letter the next day but didn’t receive it for several days. It all clicks. His son was supposed to get the honor but honored his father instead.
At the great hall where the ceremony takes place, we watch Eliezer watch dancers rehearse a surreal number, and for a moment we wonder whether he’s dreaming. But then it all becomes too ordinary for a dream. We get Uriel in the audience, suffering in silence as his father suffered in silence, estranged from his son as his father had been estranged from his son, not communicating with his wife as his father had not communicated with his wife. He spies the elegant older woman he’d seen with his father. What’s her deal? What’s their deal? Is it an affair? The movie doesn’t say. Things are unknowable. His father is unknowable. The ways of God are unknowable while the smallness of man is overwhelming. We’re all footnotes.
In the end, Eliezer, silent and bitter, waits to go onstage to receive his honor, just as, in the beginning, he sat in the audience, silent and bitter, waiting for his son to receive his honor. We wonder: Will he go through with this charade? Or will he remain true to himself, and to science, and to scholarly research? He listens to the accolades being told about him, the fabrications and fictions, and at that moment, as he’s about to be introduced, the movie ends. It cuts off, goes dark, rolls credits. The movie ends with Eliezer doing what he’s always done: waiting in the wings.
Talk about brutal—and for the audience this time, too. Because we’ll never know. My guess? Everyone goes through with the charade, and everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. But that’s just my guess. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
April 25, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard