The fun of this time of year is that, while the studios shell out lots of dreck, smaller theaters begin releasing foreign films that went through the previous year's festival circuit without an American theatrical release. First it was The Kid with a Bike, and now there's Footnote, which claimed the screenplay prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. A dark, semi-humorous take on father-son rivalry in the world of academia, Joseph Cedar's film has quite a lot going for it, awarded screenplay included, although it does have some flaws that hold it back from being a truly great or memorable work.
Eliezer (the father; Schlomo Bar-Aba) and Uriel Shkolnik (the son; Lior Ashkenazi) are both scholars of Talmudic Studies in Israel. Eliezer comes from an older, more strictly scientific school of thought, while Uriel leans toward a more modern, theoretical and aesthetic form of inquiry. As the film opens, Uriel has just been invited to join a prestigious academy, the latest in a series of professional successes. Divided by title cards, the first segment is referred to as the worst day in Eliezer's life; the older man has been trying to ear recognition with his hard work for years, while his son constantly earns accolades. This all changes, however, when Eliezer earns the important Israel Prize, which Eliezer has entered for the past 20 years. Except that he didn't. Shortly afterwards, Uriel learns that he was supposed to win, but a clerical error led to the award going to his father. What could have been an easy fix soon becomes a complicated illustration of the pair's rivalry as it ascends to new heights.
And right off the bat, what's good and bad about Footnote becomes quite clear. Cedar has moments of visual quickness and quiet emotional power, bolstered by Amit Poznansky's energetic score. At the same time, the pacing is inconsistent, at times deeply compelling, as in the scene where Uriel learns of the error, and at other times too languid for its own good. The opening is effective, but Cedar takes more time than he needs to get to the critical turning point in the narrative, without establishing his characters as much as he thinks he has. It doesn't take much to make the point that Eliezer's years without recognition have left him bitter and anti-social, but Cedar drags out some of the opening as though giving us more of it will make the 'twist' more effective. It doesn't. The screenplay, in one of its few weak spots, also includes a handful of pointless diversions, one involving Uriel's clothes going missing while he's at the gym. The shenanigans (which end with Uriel running around in a stolen fencing uniform) are only used so that Uriel can see his father being extremely happy and sociable (from a distance), and it seems like an awfully contrived way to get to the scene. There's also a subplot involving Uriel's son Josh, which, despite being appropriate thematically, distracts from the central conflict, which is all the film really needs to be successful.
Yet for the handful of annoyances, Cedar provides quite a lot to enjoy, even if the first act disrupts the pacing of the remainder of the film. The writer/director delivers some fun visuals, namely in a fun sequence done as though it were an animated presentation on a projector. The score, though sometimes mixed too loudly, lends the film a nice energy the few times it's used, and when the writing is spot on, everything comes together beautifully. Scenes like the above-mentioned revelation regarding the mistake, or a bitter interview between Eliezer and a young journalist, register on multiple levels. This is largely thanks to the excellent work from Bar-Aba and Ashkenazi, who dig into these characters and make the rivalry, which rarely involves incidents with the two men sharing the screen, really come to life. Bar-Aba ultimately says fewer words, but he communicates, especially in one of the earliest shots (a long, slow, zoom in on his face) the sense of dejection that Eliezer has dealt with throughout his career. Just as fierce is Ashkenazi. The film has been billed as a mix of comedy and drama, although it really leans toward the latter, with only small group of lines that really produce a chuckle. The film gains its personality because it rests on the shoulders of the rivalry, and as such it's largely bitter.
Yet the bitterness never sinks the film. Quite the opposite; it gives Footnote a stronger sense of purpose, even when the pacing falters. So when it moves into its ambiguous conclusion, there's no frustration, because Cedar has given us the right questions to mull over that a more explicit ending would have robbed us of. Whatever its flaws, Footnote ends with its best foot forward, and concludes in a manner that feels appropriate given its overarching themes. While the resolution to the problem remains something of an issue, the ambiguity of the aftermath actually deepens the film's effectiveness, when it could have come off as a cop-out. The rivalry may still be intact, but that actually makes Footnote more satisfying, because, as is often the case in real life, a more concrete resolution wouldn't make the relationships any less messy. Cedar's film may have its rough spots, but its strengths do a such a generally fine job of balancing the scale, that as time passes it's easier to let them slide, even if they can never be completely ignored.