Academic satire breathes a fairly rarified air, typically isolated to dodgy second novels or the untenured ravings of drunk grad students. It seems diminishing, then, to classify director Joseph Cedar’s brilliant new movie, Footnote, as merely a jab at the pretensions of ivory tower intellectuals. Though this nearly perfect film does pick, hilariously, at the itchy nit of alienated highbrows — revealing how the fortress of academia also doubles as emotional hideout — it becomes in the end something more profound than the infinitesimal parody implied by its title. Like all great comedies, from Don Quixote to Annie Hall, Footnote is tragic at heart. Funny, yes, but heart-wrenchingly so.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a proud, grouchy philologist whose 20 painstaking years of Talmudic research were suddenly trumped by a colleague’s lucky discovery. Eliezer’s son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is an academic all-star, a pompous, self-regarding but ultimately likable professor whose pop ethnographies are scorned as mere Judaic folklore by his scientifically rigorous father. When bitter old Eliezer is mistakenly notified that he’s to be awarded the coveted Israel Prize actually meant for Uriel, the fragile bonds of father and son — knotted up by pride, disappointment, envy, anger, resentment and idolization — begin to fray, and the line separating love and betrayal is erased by desperate measures.
It’s a juicy premise, and writer/director Cedar lets things run their disastrous course without losing an ounce of empathy for each character drawn into this one family’s drama. Compared to the act of dying, comedy indeed might be hard to pull off, but Cedar and his talented ensemble cast make it look easy. Footnote has an almost anachronistic feel about it, like some old-school effort from a Golden Age director like Wilder or Sturges; the filmmaking is solid but playful — flashbacks are framed like bits of microfiche — and the story, up to its ambivalent conclusion, maintains an intricate symmetry and equilibrium. As with the excellent later films of Woody Allen (Deconstructing Harry, Match Point), Cedar’s comedy has the force of a well-conceived, immaculately executed short story: snappy, sharp and so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Footnote is playing at the Bijou; bijou-cinemas.com